Report (2nd Day)
Fixed-term Parliaments Bill
Clause 2 : Early parliamentary general elections
Amendment 19 not moved.
Moved by Lord Howarth of Newport
20: Clause 2, leave out Clause 2 and insert the following new Clause-
"Early parliamentary general elections
(1) An early parliamentary general election is to take place if-
(a) the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (2), and
(b) if the motion is passed on a division, the number of members who vote in favour of the motion is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats).
(2) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (1)(a) is-
"That there shall be an early parliamentary general election."
(3) An early parliamentary general election is also to take place if-
(a) the House of Commons passes a motion in the form set out in subsection (4), and
(b) the period of 14 days after the day on which that motion is passed ends without the House passing a motion in the form set out in subsection (5).
(4) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (3)(a) is-
"That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government."
(5) The form of motion for the purposes of subsection (3)(b) is-
"That this House has confidence in Her Majesty's Government."
(6) Subsection (7) applies for the purposes of the Timetable in rule 1 in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983.
(7) If a parliamentary general election is to take place as provided for by subsection (1) or (3), the polling day for the election is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (and, accordingly, the appointed day replaces the day which would otherwise have been the polling day for the next election determined under section 1)."
Lord Howarth of Newport (Labour)
My Lords, the new clause inserted by Amendment 20 would replace the existing Clause 2. It is focused on three purposes. It removes from the Bill as received from the other place ambiguities and vagueness about what is a Motion of no confidence and what is a Motion of confidence. It protects the Speaker of the House of Commons by removing him from the process of determining what is a Motion of no confidence or a Motion of confidence, and it improves the protection of parliamentary privilege. I see it as an exercise in damage limitation.
This new clause, unlike other new clauses tabled by noble Lords to replace Clause 2, makes no other changes to the Bill. It would do nothing to thwart the essential purposes of the Government in the Bill. It retains the two-thirds provision and the 14-days provision which the Government want. I have made plain in other debates that I do not like these provisions and, indeed, I think the whole undertaking of this Bill to establish fixed-term Parliaments is a bad idea, but in this House, presented with the will of the House of Commons, those of us who do not like it have, I fear, to accept that it is a bad idea whose time has come.
"within a context of having a fixed term, there should nevertheless be a mechanism to trigger an early election if there has been deadlock in the other place, if a Government lose confidence, and if no Government can be formed who maintain confidence. There is an argument for having consensus about Dissolution and proper provision being made for it, as well as for trying to minimise the potential for abuse of the trigger on the part of the Executive and to get clarity as to what constitutes a vote of confidence. There may well be circumstances in which a vote of no confidence does not necessarily have to trigger a general election. How do we clarify those circumstances in a way which is acceptable? These are the general principles and issues which I want to put flesh on".-[Hansard, 29/3/11; col. 1215.]
I believe that this new clause is also consistent with the conclusions of your Lordships' Select Committee on the Constitution. I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Minister and his colleague Mr Harper for meeting me and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, the noble Lord, Lord Martin and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who have put their names to the new clause. Of course, I have drawn enormous encouragement from their doing so. The Minister was characteristically courteous and constructive at the meeting. In light of our productive discussion, the new clause we originally tabled was somewhat redrafted and improved. I was delighted when the Minister added his own name to the new clause.
Clause 2(2) as drafted-concerning Motions of no confidence and Motions of confidence-contains problematic ambiguities and vaguenesses. These were helpfully described by Dr Anne Twomey in her written evidence to your Lordships' Select Committee on the Constitution, at paragraphs 4.11 and 4.12 on page 152 of the compendium of written evidence. Such ambiguities do not matter where constitutional procedures are not statutorily prescribed. Indeed, they may be beneficial as they allow the determination of who is to be the Government to happen in response to fluctuating political realities. But in a statutory system, they are dangerous, creating a combination of uncertainty and inflexibility.
To the observations made by Dr Twomey, I would add that there is a further crucial vagueness in Clause 2 as drafted, in that there is no legal definition either already in existence or provided by the Bill as to what is a Motion of confidence or no confidence. The reason why this is so crucial and dangerous is that, as the Bill stands, it could in some circumstances lay the onus of interpretation, and therefore of decision as to the fate of the Government and whether there is to be a general election, on the Speaker. Although in some instances it would be entirely clear from the wording of the Motion that the vote was a confidence or no confidence vote, it would by no means necessarily be so. As the invaluable brief from the Library of the House of Commons says:
"Yet, despite their central importance, there is no certainty about the rules on the form and applicability of confidence motions in the UK Parliament, as it is established by convention rather than by statute or standing order of the House ... There is no standard formulation for confidence motions".
Motions may be regarded as Motions of censure or confidence according to particular circumstances. A Motion to reduce a Minister's salary was regarded as a confidence Motion in 1895. Motions in two debates on Suez in 1956 were regarded by the House of Commons as confidence Motions, though neither the substantive Motions nor the amendments were formulated as Motions of no confidence or Motions of confidence. In 1976, an adjournment Motion was treated as a confidence Motion following the defeat of the Government on their public expenditure White Paper. In 2003, Mr Blair made clear only after the debate and the vote that he regarded the vote on the Iraq war as a confidence vote. It is very hard to see how the Speaker could possibly have issued a certificate in some of these situations.
Under our existing arrangements, it is for the Prime Minister and the House of Commons to judge whether a Motion is a matter of confidence. Under the system that the Government have hitherto proposed, it would be for the Speaker. This, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, explained to us compellingly in Committee, would be a major extension of the Speaker's role and could be a very dangerous one. It could politicise the role of the Speaker, requiring the Speaker to decide a supremely contentious, vexed and fraught political issue. In Committee, the Lord, Lord Martin, described the vicious pressures that could be expected to be brought to bear on the Speaker in such circumstances. If the Speaker were perceived to have taken sides, his reputation as a servant of the whole House and his reputation for impartiality and integrity could hardly survive. Not only would the reputation of the individual Speaker suffer, but at a time when we all desperately want to see the reputation of Parliament regained, it would also affect the very office of the Speaker, which personifies the institution of the Commons. The new clause therefore omits the requirement for the Speaker to issue certificates. I am very pleased to see that none of the amendments now on the Marshalled List relating to Clause 2 seeks to preserve the requirement for the Speaker to issue certificates.
The new clause also seeks to provide clarity as to what is to be a Motion of confidence or of no confidence. Under the new clause, Motions understood politically to relate to confidence could in the future still be debated and voted on in a multiplicity of forms, just as they have in the past. But for the purposes of establishing constitutionally and legally, in the new context of this fixed-term Parliaments legislation and provision within it for an early parliamentary general election, whether a Motion of confidence or no confidence has or has not been passed, the Motion must have been tabled in the precise terms prescribed in the new clause.
Let me note here that the new clause would allow for the possibility of the Prime Minister resigning and an early general election occurring in that situation. This is something that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I have both been concerned to see accommodated within the legislation. The noble Lord has tabled a new clause which deals specifically with that. This new clause does not do so because I think it is unnecessary. Under the new clause, if the Prime Minister and the Government resigned, he could give way to another Prime Minister who would seek a vote of confidence. If the new Prime Minister secured the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days, no general election would follow, and if he did not, there would then be an early election. Alternatively, a Prime Minister who resigned could ask the House of Commons to agree by a vote of two-thirds of its Members that there should be an early general election. In these ways, the Government's purpose is preserved, but the Prime Minister should not be free of himself to determine the date of a general election. However, the flexibility exists to hold an early election following the resignation of the Prime Minister if the House of Commons judges it to be appropriate.
There is also the important consideration that tightening the definitions of confidence and no confidence Motions, and removing from the Bill the Speaker's duty to issue a certificate, may help to protect the House of Commons from the risk that proceedings in Parliament, contrary to the doctrine of parliamentary privilege and the principle so eloquently expressed in Article 9 of the Bill of Rights, would be questioned in court. Academic witnesses and your Lordships' Select Committee have taken the view that while the risk of intervention by the courts cannot entirely be discounted, there is no serious practical risk of this happening. The Clerk of the House of Commons, in formal evidence based on the expert advice available to him and reiterated after he had taken account of all the evidence given to both Select Committees, disagrees. I believe that we should do what we can to minimise any risk, even if it is a remote risk, to parliamentary privilege.
I explained in Committee during our debate on Amendment 42 why, for my part, I do think that there is a real risk that the Bill as we now have it could increase the potential for intrusion by the courts, and the risk may come particularly from the European Court of Human Rights into what should be strictly internal proceedings in Parliament. I will not repeat the points I made then. Much more important than what I say were the warnings given in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin. It is among the many virtues of your Lordships' appointed House that we have among us former Speakers of the House of Commons. We recognise that they speak with particular authority concerning such matters.
My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lord Bach took me rather by surprise when they tabled their amendments to this new clause on Thursday. I knew, of course, that they were opposed to the 14-days provision; that is common ground among many of us. But the purpose of this new clause has been strictly focused on preventing unnecessary damage to the office of the Speaker and to the effective functioning of the House of Commons within the context of the Government's policy on fixed-term Parliaments. Ministers have responded constructively to these concerns, which have also been expressed by very eminent Cross-Benchers as well as by me. We negotiated to achieve the formulation in the revised new clause set out in Amendment 20. I gave the Minister my word that I was content with it and that I would table the revised new clause in exactly those words. So my noble friends have placed me in a delicate position. What matter, however, are the decisions the House will take, having looked at the new clause, the amendments tabled to it, and the other interesting new clauses that have been tabled. I beg to move.
Amendment 20A (to Amendment 20)
Moved by Lord Falconer of Thoroton
20A: Clause 2, line 13, leave out from "(4)" to end of line 16
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)
My Lords, the circumstances in which there can be an early general election is the outstanding critical issue in the Bill. If one looks at this problem, one sees yet further evidence of the Bill not having been thought out. I shall identify what appeared in Committee to be the three main problems with Clause 2.
The first was the involvement of the Speaker. We were privileged to hear speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn, both of whom made it clear, pretty well beyond argument, that the involvement of the Speaker was entirely wrong. The amendment which my noble friend Lord Howarth has put down along with the noble Baroness, the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would get rid of the involvement of the Speaker. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has supported that. There appears, therefore, no longer to be an issue in relation to the involvement of the Speaker. I support my noble friend Lord Howarth in expressing gratitude to the noble and learned Lord for achieving that. It is typical of the way in which he has conducted himself in relation to this matter.
The second issue was the lack of a satisfactory definition of a vote of no confidence, as referred to in Clause 2(2). That had two separate aspects to it. First, you could not tell what was meant by a Motion of no confidence. Did it include anything that would be understood to mean a Motion of no confidence, or did it mean only something that said, "This House has no confidence in the Government"? That first bit of the problem has been solved by the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Howarth because it makes it clear that the only sort of Motion of no confidence that would trigger an early general election is one that says, "This House has no confidence in the Government". The amendment is good in that respect. However, it does not deal with the other problem in relation to Motions of no confidence; namely, that there are many Motions that could be passed by the House of Commons that indicate that it had no confidence in the Government.
The first and most obvious is the House failing to pass a Motion of confidence in the Government. For example, Mr Major's Government were defeated on Maastricht. They then put down a Motion of confidence in themselves. Had Mr Major's Government then been defeated on the Motion of confidence in the House of Commons-which they were not-there could not have been a general election at that point, because the only possible trigger for a general election would have been a Motion of no confidence and not a failed Motion of confidence. After Mr Major's Government had failed to win the Motion of confidence, the Opposition would then have had to put down a Motion of no confidence in the Government. If that had been won by the Opposition-that is, if a Motion of no confidence in the Government had been passed-that still would not be the end of it under this Bill, because there would then be a 14-day period in which either the existing Government of Mr Major could have sought to put together a majority to survive or an alternative Government could have emerged. So if the facts are taken and applied to an historical example, it produces a rather unsatisfactory result.
There are three other shots on the Marshalled List at how you deal with a Motion of no confidence. First, there is the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. He defines a Motion of no confidence as being either a vote of no confidence in the Government or a negatived vote of confidence; that is, the Government have put down a vote of confidence in themselves and it has been defeated by the House of Commons. The noble Lord then includes the 14-day period after that. It is in some ways better than a simple Motion of no confidence but it still keeps in the 14-day period. The noble Lord introduces another innovation in that his amendment allows for a general election if the Prime Minister resigns and a period of 60 days go by in which no alternative Government emerge. The problem with that is that if you have a majority and you want to have a general election at any time, you simply resign, sit out the 60 days and then have a general election. That would be contrary to the purposes of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill and very unsatisfactory.
The next alternative is in the amendment put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Hamilton of Epsom. The difference between that amendment and the other amendments is that it seeks to define a vote of no confidence as including not passing the Second or Third Reading of a Finance Bill or the passing of a Motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government. That is a third definition which also keeps in the 14 days. Or am I wrong about that? It does not keep in the 14 days.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)
The final definition-which is in every single respect perfect-has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. It states basically that if there is a vote of no confidence there has to be a general election, and that a vote of no confidence occurs where the Queen's Speech is defeated, a Motion of no confidence is passed, a Motion of confidence is negatived or the Prime Minister has indicated in advance that a particular vote is to be regarded as a vote of no confidence and that vote is defeated. The best example of that is when Mr Wilson was Prime Minister in 1976 and his public expenditure estimates were defeated one evening in the House of Commons, which was obviously a critical matter for his Government. He was keen to establish that the Commons had confidence in his Government and so he announced in advance that the next day's Motion on the adjournment would be a Motion of confidence. That was treated by Parliament as a Motion of confidence in the Government; it went in favour of the Government and he survived.
What should the House do in the context of this galaxy of opportunities that have now been offered to it? I respectfully suggest that the House should do the following: respect the work that has been done by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, the noble Lords, Lord Martin and Lord Pannick, and my noble friend Lord Howarth and build on it; and knock out the 14 days, which is a total waste of time and contrary to what the House of Commons would do. No one supported it during the course of debate. The way to achieve that is to amend the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and her colleagues and knock out the 14 days.
The one circumstance in which 14 days would be worth while is where a Government are formed after a general election and then immediately fail to get the confidence of the House of Commons. It would not be right to force a general election at that time. Everyone will remember the one example of that where Mr Baldwin headed the biggest single party after the election in 1923, Labour came second and the Liberals came third. The Conservatives under Baldwin produced a King's Speech that was defeated the first time round and Labour was then given the opportunity to form its first Administration. That was a wholly appropriate working of the constitution.
Lord Morgan (Labour)
On the Baldwin point, it is quite important to know that in 1924 there was, as it were, an understood majority in waiting. It was not a random resignation by Baldwin. Therefore, it was clear what the outcome would be.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)
I completely agree with that but it does not change the basic principle that if the first party after a general election cannot form an Administration it should go to the next person most suitable to do it. That should be regarded as an exception.
What I would recommend to the House and what my party is going to do is to vote in favour of my amendments to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Howarth. Those amendments have the effect of knocking out the reference to 14 days but leaving in the option of discussing whether there should be a new Government if the Government are in the Baldwin situation whereby they have never gained the confidence of the House of Commons. It is not perfect and lacks the beauty and comprehensiveness of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong. But it is a sensible, clear way in which to deal with the three problems-first, by knocking out the references to the Speaker and to 14 days and by at least giving us certainty about what is meant by a Motion of no confidence. For those reasons, that is the position of my party. I beg to move.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, we have made real progress. When the Bill was presented to this House on
I have always been worried throughout my time in Parliament about the incomprehensibility of legislation to those who sent us to Parliament. It is my belief that legislation should be understandable to the ordinary, intelligent and well informed voter-and there are far more ordinary, intelligent and well informed voters than many would give credit for, as was made clear in the referendum that took place not so long ago. I have tried very hard in the amendments that I have tabled, first, to try to make this Bill more understandable and, secondly, in the third version of my amendment that is on the Marshalled List today, to try to reflect some of the understandable criticisms levelled at my original amendment in Committee. That in itself illustrates the general wisdom of this House, which will normally leave votes until Report. What I have tried to do in the amendment today is to heed what was said in the lengthy, fascinating and well informed debate that we had in Committee. Above all I have taken out, as have others, the reference to the Speaker of the House of Commons. The more we thought about and debated that, the clearer it became that it was neither necessary nor desirable so it does not feature in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, nor indeed in any of the others. That in itself is a significant step forward.
However, I also tried to reflect the requests which came, particularly from the Liberal Democrat Benches, that the definition of a vote of confidence should be clearer and simpler. In my first amendment, I had a number of definitions not dissimilar from those listed in the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. I am the first to admit readily that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is correct in saying that none of us has got it absolutely right; there is no perfection in these matters. I also pay tribute to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, whom I have met on a number of occasions and who has been extremely anxious both to listen and discuss and to try and improve the Bill.
Having said that I will refer briefly, if I may, to the amendment in my name, which has the wonderful designation of Amendment 22ZA and which attempts to make the law a little more understandable. This amendment has been supported by my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom and I am most grateful for that. It says that an,
of those voting,
"a resolution 'That there shall be an early general election'."
Frankly, I did not like the existing provision in the Bill that it should be two-thirds of the membership of the House. As it is bound to be a big vote, I can think how very unsatisfactory it would be if, because of some major problem with the weather or some accident in London that delayed Members getting to the House, there were a clear two-thirds majority in that big vote that was not quite two-thirds of those elected to the House-"including vacant seats", as in the Bill-so I have made it a two-thirds majority of those voting.
My amendment also says-this is where my 14 days comes in-that,
there will be an early general election. That is not a prescriptive 14 days. There need not be more than 14 hours. It might happen extremely quickly but it cannot drag on because across the House, at Second Reading and in Committee, there was almost universal distaste for long periods of bartering and horse-trading. There were many amusing references to what the Whips might get up to in another place-I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, a distinguished former Chief Whip, indicate assent at this point-to try to reverse a vote that had taken place, so my amendment says that if there is a vote of no confidence, that should be sufficient to trigger a general election.
We have debated this extensively at Second Reading and in Committee. Many of us have cited the famous example of Lord Callaghan who, as Mr James Callaghan, the Prime Minister, resigned in March 1979 immediately upon being defeated in a vote of no confidence in that House. His exceptionally dignified words on that occasion have been quoted in this Chamber more than once. He said that the House of Commons had spoken and it was now for the country to decide. It is really that Callaghan principle that I have tried to translate into my attempt at a new clause: if the House of Commons passes a Motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government, the Prime Minister shall forthwith submit to Her Majesty a request for a proclamation to dissolve Parliament and provide for a general election.
Then I have sought to give a simpler definition of a vote of no confidence, falling short of the number of definitions that I had in my first amendment in Committee and of the list provided for the House today by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, but saying that if the House denies a Second or Third Reading to a Finance Bill, that is clearly an expression of no confidence in the Government of the day because the whole purpose of voting supply is fundamental to the governing of our country. I also said that if a Motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government, tabled by the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, is passed, no matter whether the majority is one, as it was in 1979, or 101, that is it.
I suggest that, although the amendment is not perfect, it is a reasonable attempt to put into understandable language the provisions that could trigger a general election, allowing for more than just the vote of no confidence but clearly defining it. As I have said to the Minister on more than one occasion, when one tries to codify convention it is exceptionally difficult. I say again, as I have said before, that I would rather that we were not having to engage in this exercise but the Commons has decreed it and we must try, according to our rights and our duties, to make the Bill better. I suggest that the proposed new clause would make it better than what exists already.
Of course, if the House decided to approve the proposed new clause that has been supported by the Minister, either amended or unamended, there would be no opportunity to test the opinion of the House on this alternative. I will hold my fire on any votes that might take place beforehand to see whether we have the opportunity to vote on this one. Whatever happens today, though, I feel extremely pleased that the Minister has listened carefully and there is going to be an improvement in the Bill, in whatever precise form it leaves this Chamber today. We now have to let the debate follow its course and see what happens. As I sit down, I commend to your Lordships the idea of having a clause that is as understandable and comprehensive as can reasonably be expected.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (Crossbench)
My Lords, I hope that the House will forgive me. I have to chair a committee upstairs at 4 pm so I rise perhaps a little prematurely to commend to your Lordships my Amendment 22ZB. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has already described what the amendment is intended to do; I do not need to repeat that, as he did so better than I could do myself. It loses the Speaker and the 14 days. It lays down precisely what is to happen if there is a vote of no confidence, and lays upon the Prime Minister the first duty to seek a dissolution of Parliament in the event of a vote of no confidence being passed. It defines with clarity what shall be regarded as a vote of no confidence for the purpose of triggering that Motion. That seems to be clear, simple and practicable. I strongly commend it to your Lordships as a way of resolving these problems in a simple and clear way and establishing a sensible procedure for the duration of the Bill if it becomes an Act.
Lord Butler of Brockwell (Crossbench)
My Lords, I raise one question with my noble friend about his amendment. Under subsection (2)(a) of the proposed new clause, the Prime Minister would be bound to submit to Her Majesty a request for a proclamation leading to a general election if the Queen's Speech had been rejected. Would not that go against what happened in 1924, when there was indeed a defeat on the Queen's Speech, but one which had been expected, and an alternative Government was then appointed? Would it not be regrettable to make it inevitable that there should be a general election in a circumstance such as that?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)
Let me assist by saying that I think that the noble Lord is right. To add another prong to that argument, we have tabled an amendment to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, which covers that precise position.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (Crossbench)
My Lords, my thought was that that sort of situation would be covered by the fact that the Prime Minister would be submitting a request for a Dissolution to Her Majesty. In all normal circumstances, of course, Her Majesty could act upon such a request. However, there could be circumstances in which Her Majesty might wish to say, "Before accepting this request, I wish to consider whether a Dissolution is the right course of action to pursue at this time". She could then have consultations with political leaders to find out whether that is the case.
Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)
My starting point, like other noble Lords, is that all the amendments are an improvement on Clause 2. The clause seeks to translate a convention into statute, which is extremely difficult to do as my noble friend Lord Cormack mentioned, and is for that reason very rarely attempted. The Government rest on the confidence of the House of Commons. If that is withdrawn, the Prime Minister by convention has the option of resigning or seeking the Dissolution of Parliament. The circumstances in which the Commons can demonstrate a lack of confidence are varied, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thornton, has quite clearly adumbrated.
As we have heard, Clause 2 seeks to maintain these conditions but, in so doing, requires the Speaker of the House of Commons to be custodian of our present understandings of the convention. As we heard in Committee, that puts the Speaker in an untenable situation, having to make a decision that may be highly contentious politically, potentially sealing the fate of the Government.
The alternative, therefore, is to move away from flexibility to certainty or some degree of certainty. All these amendments, as we have heard, seek to do that. The one that comes closest to maintaining the current conventions is Amendment 22ZB of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, in that it retains the power for the Prime Minister to designate any Motion as one on which defeat will be treated as a matter of confidence. The others are more restrictive.
It strikes me that there are four, not necessarily compatible, criteria by which we can assess the amendments before us. First, to what extent do they retain the existing conventions? As I have said, the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, comes closest, putting flesh on the bones of what Clause 2 seeks to achieve. If we wish to retain the flexibility of existing arrangements, that is the most desirable amendment. It does not replicate precisely the existing convention, as it precludes the option of resignation as an alternative to the Dissolution of Parliament, though in that respect it follows what has been recent practice.
My amendment is a close second in two respects. First, like Amendment 22ZB, it retains the capacity of the Prime Minister to move that the House has confidence in the Government. This enables the Government to seek the confidence of the House in the event of uncertainty, such as, for instance, following the loss of a vote on a major item of Government policy. Secondly, in the event of the House withdrawing its confidence in the Government, it retains the option, unlike Amendment 22ZB but in common with the other amendments, for an alternative Government to be formed without the need for an election.
As we have heard, all the amendments bar Amendment 22ZB include the 14-day provision. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, in his amendment seeks to remove that provision. I was not quite clear as to why, and certainly was not persuaded by the arguments he adduced in favour of removing that provision. If you remove it you create a problem, which he recognises by the tabling of Amendment 20C, which essentially corrects the problem created by his Amendment 20A, for which I do not see a particularly strong case in any event.
Secondly, do the amendments meet a test of certainty? In other words, are the conditions under which the Government are deemed to have lost the confidence of the House clear beyond peradventure? The existing clause clearly fails the test. All the amendments before us come close to meeting the test. As far as I can see, Amendments 20, 21 and 22ZA are sufficiently clear as not to require adjudication, thus eliminating the mischief inherent in the existing provisions of the clause. The only possible ambiguity in Amendment 22ZB rests in subsection (2)(d) in the form of the declaration made by the Prime Minister. Is it to be in writing and laid before the House? Is it to be made in advance of the vote on the Motion or before the Motion is debated?
Thirdly, do they cover all eventualities? The amendments of the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Armstrong, do not address what happens if the Government resign without having lost a Motion of confidence or an early election Motion being passed by a two-thirds majority. This is what may be called the Belgian question. If a Government fall apart and the Prime Minister tenders the resignation of the Government but under conditions where the Opposition are not ready for an election and cannot realistically form an Administration, what happens? The Bill makes no provision for such an eventuality. Subsection (3) of my amendment seeks to cover such a situation, as does my noble friend Lord Cormack in subsection (1)(b) of his amendment. My amendment provides that if, after 60 days, no Government have been formed an election shall take place. My noble friend provides a 14-day limit. I prescribe a substantial time to limit the opportunity for exploitation. A lot can happen in 60 days. However, for the moment, my argument is that we need to cover such an eventuality.
I appreciate the argument that has been advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who argued that such a situation is so unlikely that the provision is likely never to be invoked. The same argument can be advanced in respect of the provision for an early election Motion. The circumstances in which one is likely to need and be able to mobilise a two-thirds majority or a unanimous vote are likely to be extremely rare. However, neither situation is impossible. It is possible for the House of Commons to fail to agree on any option, as happened in 2003 in the votes on the various options for the future of this House. It may, therefore, be desirable to cover all eventualities. In terms of covering all eventualities, subsection (1)(a) of Amendment 22ZA presupposes that the Motion will be passed on a Division. Subsection (1) of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, originally did likewise, but has now been changed to cover such a Motion being passed without a Division.
The amendments to Amendments 20 and 22ZB, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, seek to cover the situation following the meeting of a new Parliament and the Government's losing a vote of confidence. I can see why his Amendment 22ZD is desirable but, as I have said, I cannot see the argument for why his earlier amendment is required.
Fourthly, do the amendments limit or eliminate the opportunity for the Government to engineer an early Dissolution for their political benefit? The purpose of the Bill, as we have heard, is to ensure that there are fixed terms and that there is an early Dissolution only in exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances do not include enabling the Government to trigger an election at a time that is politically beneficial. If they did, it would undermine the whole purpose of the Bill. I know that, as the noble and learned Lord has said, he would find that quite attractive.
Lord Howarth of Newport (Labour)
Does the noble Lord recognise that there could be a legitimate concern since he provides that an early general election is also to take place if, on a specified date, the House of Commons has negatived a Motion that this House has confidence in Her Majesty's Government? Does that not provide too tempting an avenue for the Prime Minister to contrive a vote of confidence, and to contrive to lose it? The noble Lord spoke earlier of the need to avoid exploitation; this is trying to do that.
Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)
The noble Lord anticipates what I am coming on to. That is what I want to deal with. That is my whole point about this question. I know that some noble Lords would find it attractive if we undermined the Bill in this respect. However, if we proceed on the basis of what the Bill seeks to achieve, we need to identify any provision that could be exploited by the Government. The amendment that comes closest to being foolproof in this respect is Amendment 20 in that, apart from an early election Motion, the only way to trigger an election is through the House passing a Motion of no confidence in the Government. As the noble Lord touched on, there is no provision for the Government to move a Motion of confidence and then invite their own supporters to vote against it, as has happened in Germany and could, as he says, happen under my amendment and that of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong.
A Government could also trigger an election under Amendment 22ZB by the Prime Minister declaring any Motion one of confidence and ensuring that government MPs voted against it or stayed away to ensure that it was defeated. However, Amendment 20 is not completely foolproof. There is no restriction on who can table a Motion of no confidence. It could be tabled by a government Back-Bencher, possibly at the behest of the Prime Minister, thus enabling the Government to engineer their own defeat. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Cormack provides that a Motion of no confidence may be moved only by the Leader of the Opposition. That may be deemed unduly restrictive, but it prevents the provision being used by the Government for their own benefit-the very point that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, mentioned.
However, although my noble friend's amendment deals with what some may see as a loophole, it introduces a loophole of its own. Under subsection (1)(b), a Prime Minister could simply resign, and, if the Opposition take over, move a vote of no confidence-the outgoing Prime Minister presumably assuming the mantle of Leader of the Opposition-or deny them the opportunity to govern by voting down whatever they bring forward.
In short, each amendment has its merits, though none is ideal in terms of the criteria that I have adumbrated. That is more or less bound to be the case given that the criteria are not necessarily compatible. We are moving away from seeking to retain the existing conventions in favour of greater certainty.
My amendment seeks to provide for all, or at least more, eventualities than that covered by the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, and to enable the Government to seek the confidence of the House. As I say, I appreciate that may be open to abuse by a Prime Minister, but the risk has to be offset against the value of retaining the existing practice.
I commend my amendment to the House but do so in the recognition that the ideal may not be one of these amendments but one drawn from what is before us. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, to which my noble and learned friend the Minister has added his name, is certainly a massive improvement on what is in the Bill. We may be able to tweak it further, but our deliberations on the clause show what can be achieved through debate and constructive discourse. If we are not quite there, we are very close.
Baroness Hayman (Non-affiliated)
My Lords, it may assist the House if I clarify the procedural position once more as I think that a little confusion may have arisen. I make it clear that although we are having a debate on all the potential alternative new clauses, some of them with and some without amendment, they are alternatives and no issue of pre-emption arises. Therefore, it is possible for the House to take a series of decisions about individual amendments as they arise in the schedule. Some noble Lords may not have been certain about their alternatives after a decision had been taken on the first proposed new clause. I hope that might be of some assistance.
Baroness Boothroyd (Crossbench)
My Lords, having heard that, I hope that I am now in order in rising to support the amendment, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth.
I begin by making the point that the removal of the Speaker's certificate as a requisite for calling an early general election certainly meets my principal objection to the original wording in Clause 2. I take this opportunity to thank the Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and the Government for accepting the need to safeguard the non-partisan position of the Speaker in their proposed legislation. I think that the noble and learned Lord realises that I should have liked them to have gone a little further on this clause, but I would not push my luck in such circumstances, and I am thankful for small mercies.
I hope that all parties in the other place will take the opportunity, when the Bill returns to the Commons, to place on record the importance of a Speaker's independence and never again put it at risk, as did the original clause. It gives me particular satisfaction to know that some of us were able to use our membership of this House to help remove a defect in the Bill that, to put it perfectly bluntly, should have been corrected in the other place-the elected Chamber. It proves, yet again, the indispensible role that your Lordships play in the legislative process, particularly in constitutional matters.
We have talked about perfection, and I regret that the amendment is not as precise or as perfect as I would wish. That is life. However, when considered along with other amendments, it is a reasonable way forward and we can make the best of what I regard as a poor and unnecessary item of legislation.
I wish to place my view on record in relation to the leeway, or what I call the 14-day cooling-off period, following a vote of no confidence, to give time to the Executive to cobble together and approve a new Government. That requirement in the Bill strikes at the very roots of my belief in the way our democracy works. For reasons that we all understand, we have a coalition Government who govern on the basis of a two-party agreement. I have no quarrel with that. I accept the need for coalitions when no party has an overall majority. Nor am I opposed to the principle of self-preservation-I practice it myself. However, if the Government were to lose the confidence of the Commons, this legislation would allow a different coalition, a coalition mark II, to replace it after 14 days of hard bargaining, wheeler-dealing or horse trading-call it what you want-without reference to the electorate by calling an election. That is wrong.
In that event, the Bill would be seen as the "elections avoidance Act"-and rightly so. Some might call it a "fixed Parliaments Act"-using "fixed" in its pejorative sense. I confess to belonging to the school of democrats who believe in the unfettered right of the Commons to send a Government packing, as it did in 1979, and in the integrity of the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box to say what he would do. I also believe in the sovereign right of the people of this country to elect their Governments at elections. I maintain that these two rights are not incompatible and we should not tamper with them. They have served us well and are the basis of our parliamentary democracy.
This time, the Commons is the target of the constitutional meddlers. However, proposals for the abolition of this House will soon be put before us. The bottom line of my concern now is that the legislation restricts the traditional freedom of the elected Chamber to get rid of a failed Government and for a Prime Minister to go the country to seek a mandate. Snap elections have become a derogatory term in some quarters. Many countries that I know are under the yoke of dictators and would love to hold a snap election. I would rather have a snap election at any time than a Parliament that is well and truly fixed in the way that many are and in the manner now proposed by this coalition.
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I have listened with great interest to people who have a great deal more experience and expertise in this matter than I, and I think that we are gradually moving towards a very sensible conclusion. On all sides of the House, we need to express our thanks to my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, whose personal intervention has moved us in a sensible direction. That is evidence, contrary to what was being said at earlier stages of the consideration of the Bill, that the Government are listening to your Lordships' House and have moved.
However, it is equally true, and I commend it for this, that the coalition has not been prepared to accept wrecking tactics which would undo what is, after all, a Bill which came to your Lordships' House from the other place, which, as we have already heard this afternoon, we all regard as retaining primacy in our parliamentary system. I very much welcome the constructive dialogue that has taken place during the interval between different stages of the Bill. One of the most important points that has arisen since we were discussing this last week is an emphasis on simplicity. Several colleagues on all sides of the House said that that is an important part of how we can improve legislation. Frankly, on that ground alone, the Government may well be fully justified in seeking to reverse the amendment passed on such a narrow majority last week, because it adds a whole new layer of unnecessary complexity.
By contrast, Amendment 20 has clearly benefited from the experience of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Martin-two distinguished former Speakers-among others. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, was generous in saying that it seems to meet many of his criteria. I think that his phrase was that it was the nearest to being completely foolproof of the amendments before us. The simplification of Clause 2 also certainly meets the major anxieties that my noble friends Lord Rennard, Lord Marks and I had over the rather cumbersome process originally set out.
At this point, it is important to emphasise that the sole purpose of the legislation is to give new responsibility, new power to Parliament, rather than to reinforce the current opportunity of the Prime Minister of the day-who is, after all, a party leader; we should never forget that-to pick and choose the most favourable date for an election for his or her party. There was some confusion last week on that point. By legislating for a parliamentary safety valve to enable an early election to take place within the normal five-year period, the Government are right to insist that that must be on the basis of cross-party support in the House of Commons. We should not revert to a No. 10 partisan fix.
It is important for us all to recall that we do not elect Governments in this country. The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, perhaps led us slightly astray on that point. We elect Parliament, which then gives or takes away confidence from an Administration. Therefore, the simple decision of the head of a Government that he or she can no longer continue personally to lead a Government is not the critical issue. The critical issue is: what is the decision of our Parliament and, in this case, the primary House, the House of Commons?
Last week, there was some anxiety-some amusement, in fact-about the special circumstances of October 1974 and May 1979 and the fact that such circumstances might not provide a proper opportunity for an early general election and for the people to speak. I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in his place; he should be reassured. If the Bill had reached the statute book then, I am convinced that an early general election would almost certainly have been triggered by the House of Commons in those circumstances. He would have been elected and I would have been unelected. I think that the Bill proves able to deal with the circumstances we were discussing last week.
Lord Grocott (Labour)
I was not intending to speak but it is just too tempting. I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, thinks that a key determinant of our constitutional arrangements should be simplicity and simple solutions. That is slightly ironic coming from someone who spent several months arguing for the alternative vote system but that is now behind us. I merely put it to him: is not the simplest proposition of the lot for Governments who have lost the confidence of the House of Commons by a majority of one-a simple majority-to go immediately to the country without this 14-day formulation?
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
No, my Lords; I think that that is over-simple. It does not give the House of Commons a proper, responsible role and I think that there would be circumstances in which it certainly would not be appropriate.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
Would not the circumstances where it would not be appropriate, to which my noble friend has just referred, almost certainly be coalition circumstances? Is not the real fear of many of us that the Bill has been designed to perpetuate the opportunity of coalition? Would not the public have the right to feel cheated if, as I devoutly hope does not happen, the present coalition collapsed and the leaders of the Liberal Democrat Party and the Labour Party sought to form a pact and a Government-a Government who would certainly not have commanded the support of the majority of the country last year? Do we not have to bear that in mind? Has not this been devised in a coalition climate to perpetuate a coalition climate?
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
I can only say to my noble friend that I was advancing the case for precisely this legislation long before there was ever the possibility of a coalition. It is extremely important to come back to my absolute core principle that the arithmetic of the House of Commons should be of issue. If, for example, the circumstances to which my noble friend refers occurred and there were in the House of Commons a solid majority for a change of Government in the midst of the present economic crisis, in order for that change of Government to take place without a general election it would be the House of Commons that decided whether the Government had the confidence to continue. Therefore, I do not think that that circumstance is an appropriate or proper reason for changing Amendment 20, which I think would be a useful amendment to the Bill.
The Bill recognises that, if it were acceptable or even necessary to call an early general election, the final decision should be left to Parliament and not to the individual whim of one party leader who happened to occupy No. 10. Even if there were not near unanimity among MPs, the safeguards in the Bill would ensure that, in the circumstances I have described, a vote of no confidence would lead to an early poll once it became clear that no alternative Government could be established and enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. Amendment 20 deals very well with this problem. It deals with the questions that were raised last week, although clearly some people on that occasion and now might say, "Well, we know what a Motion of no confidence looks like when we see it". Frankly, I think that the amendment deals with the problem of definition rather better than that.
I think it was my noble friend Lord Forsyth who made the point that in almost all the circumstances that have been described-defeat on a Finance Bill or some big issue of that sort-the leader of the Opposition would be likely immediately to table a Motion of no confidence in the Government. Therefore, to some extent, the suggestions that have come from other parts of the House may be superfluous. I and my colleagues tabled a probing amendment suggesting that such a Motion should always be in the name of the leader of the Opposition, which would reflect that point, but in the real world that will almost always be the person who tables the Motion.
The Government have moved substantially and my noble friend has put his name to Amendment 20. I think that the very serious problems enunciated earlier by previous Speakers of the other place have been dealt with, and removing the Speaker from a potentially very invidious position is very important.
I turn to the other amendments briefly because I suspect that they are not going to be pursued with quite the same enthusiasm as Amendment 20. The amendment in the name of my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Hamilton seems largely to enshrine the status quo. However, I do not think that the status quo is acceptable, as it involves all sorts of problems. I suggest that under their amendment a Prime Minister, instead of simply going to the Palace, as now, could engineer a vote of no confidence and therefore cut and run for an early election, which would destroy one of the major objectives of the Bill.
The proposal maintains the unfair partisan advantage conferred on one party leader as opposed to another. It is remarkable that when faced with the prospect of the first Prime Minister in history prepared to give up this important power to Parliament there seem to be some people in your Lordships' House who say, "We do not want to be given this power. We would rather you kept it, Prime Minister. We do not want the responsibility". I think that that would be a retrograde step.
The issue is also present in Amendment 22ZB in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, who has explained why he is not able to be here. Amendment 22ZB contains an extraordinary provision that any vote deemed a vote of no confidence by the Prime Minister, and party leader, should be a vote of no confidence. Rightly, the Bill and, indeed, Amendment 20 seek to avoid that. Those in your Lordships' House who lived through the Maastricht debates in the other place, particularly former Conservative MPs, will remember the pressure that was brought to bear night after night by the Whips threatening that it could be deemed a Motion of confidence that could bring the Government down and trigger an immediate general election. MPs should have the capacity to vote down the details of legislation they disapprove of without being pressurised by a Government trying to force them to take a view that is not truly theirs. I fear that Amendment 22ZB could be defective for that reason, if for no other.
There is a definite problem with that amendment since it might well be open to judicial challenge. The judicial challenge to the role of the Speaker would be very difficult but when the head of the Executive takes a decision, I think a judicial review might well be a prospect that we would have to face. I mentioned that in Committee previously and a number of Members of your Lordships' House, who are much more learned in the literal sense than me, seemed to agree with that. There is also an implication for Clause 3 and the issue of how a dissolution should take place in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong.
I am slightly baffled by the amendments in the name of members of the Labour Party and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I may just be being stupid but it seems to me that perhaps quite a major constitutional change is in prospect. The burden of their amendments seems to be that when a Government are newly elected-or, strictly, a Parliament-some special mechanism should be introduced in the days following the election.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)
I can assure the noble Lord that he is not being stupid. It is my failure for not explaining it adequately. Where there has just been a general election and a Government do not obtain the confidence of the House, the right course in those special circumstances, as in the case of Mr Baldwin in 1923, is that what the electorate may well have wanted from the election is somebody other than, as it were, Mr Baldwin. That is why those amendments are there.
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
That is a very interesting point and I shall contemplate it.
I come to another point. It would seem that the noble and learned Lord has a problem with the two-week thought process-the cooling off period that the noble Baroness referred to. I would like to know whether he stands by the statement by Mr Christopher Bryant in the other House, who said:
"We quite like the provision for two weeks-it seems sensible if an alternative coalition or Government could be formed".-[Hansard, Commons, 24/11/10; col. 361.]
He also said:
"The Government-I think rightly-want to say that after a motion of no confidence, there could be two weeks during which the House could, if it wanted, pass a motion of confidence in either the same Government, presumably, or another Government, with either the same Prime Minister or a different Prime Minister, with a different set of ministerial colleagues".-[Hansard, Commons, 24/11/10; col. 359.]
That flexibility was very admirable and a great deal more supportive, if I may say so, of the Government's position than would be implied by what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, has said. It may be that he or one of his noble friends may wish to come back and say whether Mr Bryant was misled, or whether I was misled by that interpretation.
Amendments 20C and 22ZD have so many negatives that I am in something of a spin, even after the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, explained them to me. If the intention is to make a major change in the circumstances immediately following an election, there is a good case for that: it is a very attractive proposition. The fact that the leader of the party who seeks to form an Administration should bring both the Administration and his or her programme to the House of Commons for it to be endorsed at the outset of a Parliament would emphasise that we are not electing a Government but a House of Commons, which in turn gives responsibility and power to a Government. However, it may be rather too late in the passage of this Bill to introduce changes of that scale and radical intent.
We have made huge progress. As others have said, this is very much to the credit of my noble and learned friend, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. Again, it illustrates some very important points that we should all take account of. First and foremost, we have maintained intact the principle of the Bill that was sent to us by the other House. Secondly, if we pass the amendment and introduce a new Clause 2, that will remove any possibility of any weakening of the neutrality of Speakers of the House of Commons. That is obviously desirable. Thirdly, it still removes an important extra power from Prime Ministers and their Whips simply to decide that an issue of detailed policy is a matter of confidence. All three of these achievements are truly welcome. I hope that the House will support Amendment 20.
Baroness Jay of Paddington (Labour)
My Lords, the House has been very generous in its consideration of the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution, which I have the privilege to chair. However, one aspect of our report has received scant attention, although the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to it briefly. That is the question, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, of government manipulation of the no-confidence process.
Having looked at all the amendments that have been tabled, I recognise, as do all noble Lords, that they are a vast improvement on what we were considering last week. However, it does not seem to me that these problems are met. I refer the House to the discussions that the committee had on this point with the Deputy Prime Minister. He accepted that it was not possible to exclude the possibility that the Government could manipulate Motions to this effect, but went on to say that,
"if a Government sought to do that it would be so transparent and so self-evidently grubby and self-serving that it would not do that Government any good at all".
He assumed that if a Government manipulated the process in that way, they would be punished. However, the committee held evidence that suggested that international experience does not necessarily confirm that impression. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred to examples from both Canada and Germany of occasions where Governments achieved precisely that purpose by manipulating votes of no confidence in themselves. Our evidence suggested that scrutiny of those decisions and subsequent elections that happened as a result of them did not necessarily produce an electorate who thought that this was, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, so "self-evidently grubby" that the Government should be punished. In both the most recent cases, in 2005 and 2008, in Germany and Canada, the Governments who behaved in this way were re-elected.
The House may feel that this is too small a point to consider at this stage of proceedings. However, if we are in the business, as everybody has suggested, of improving the amendments that were before us and putting into statute something that we have always understood in this country and in the history of Parliament to be a matter of conventions, we need to be very careful about this matter.
Lord Martin of Springburn (Crossbench)
My Lords, I support-along with everyone else-Amendment 20 and a new Clause 2. I put on record my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and to Mr Mark Harper, the Minister in charge in the other place. We said in Committee that we would like to meet the Minister, and it was good of him to meet us. I also put on record the great work done by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth. In these situations, there is always someone who has to do the phoning, the texting and the e-mails, and it was the noble Lord. I am very grateful to him for keeping me and my colleagues fully informed.
I am glad that the pressure has been taken away from the Speaker. Things have changed, and if the certificate has to be issued by the Speaker-unless we pass this amendment, it will have to be-there is the new dimension. When there was a majority Government, the Speaker would have to look at what the Prime Minister said. If the Prime Minister said, "I consider this vote on the Floor of the House to be a vote of confidence in me", he would be one person alone that the Speaker would have to look to. However, where we have a coalition, the Speaker would have to look not only to the Prime Minister, but to the Deputy Prime Minister. If the Deputy Prime Minister said that he considered a forthcoming vote to be a vote of no confidence, the Speaker would have to look at that. I am glad that that pressure will be taken away because there is no doubt that things have changed as far as Speakers are concerned.
I had great affection for the late Edward Heath. He used to come and see me up in Speaker's House. We would have tea and a chat about old times. He used to reminisce about when he was Chief Whip. I thought that I had better ask him about my situation. I said: "The government Chief Whip comes to see me on a weekly basis, as does the opposition Chief Whip, and every second week the Liberal party Chief Whip comes. Did you have that in your day?". He said: "We didn't bother the Speaker. The Speaker was too busy for those things". That indicated that a change took place between the 1960s and today so that Whips now come to see the Speaker on a weekly basis. I can tell noble Lords that they were always moaning. They were never happy. They were like constituents at tenants' association meetings. You always knew that they would have a complaint. At least, if the government Chief Whip was happy, you could bet your boots that there was something wrong with the opposition Chief Whip. All these pressures have been taken away by what we have before us, and I am very pleased about that.
Lord Dobbs (Conservative)
My Lords, I rise with some trepidation after so many distinguished noble Lords. The first thing I want to do is to thank, like so many other noble Lords, my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness for his care, consideration and courtesy in dealing with various issues that I have raised with him. I have been able to support the Bill because of the two great principles of certainty and stability which it enshrines, but there is a third leg of that constitutional stool, which is simplicity, as my noble friend Lord Cormack, pointed out earlier.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, explained, there is a problem with the 14-day cooling-off period. It is in danger of failing those three fundamental principles. Let me briefly take the example of 1977-79, which some of us remember so well. Those years showed the best and worst of our current system. The best was that it allowed sufficient flexibility for the formation of the Lib-Lab pact-before my noble friends begin to swoon in surprise, I emphasise that I do not hold the Lib-Lab pact as the best example of government, or even a good example of government, merely a flexible example.
How flexible our current system was became even clearer after that when the Liberals withdrew and everyone from Bill Brewer to Uncle Tom Cobbleigh got in on the act. That was the worst of the current system. Deals were done-not just with the Liberal Party, but with Ulster Unionists, Scottish nationalists, Welsh nationalists and even Irish republicans. Goodness' knows what would have happened if UKIP had been present there. Offers and inducements were made, from extra parliamentary seats to expensive pipelines to promises on devolution-even, I understand, to the occasional odd bottle of Scotch. The only reason why some of us can smile about it is because it was so very long ago.
The country was rescued from that misery by a vote of no confidence. Every man and woman in the other place that night understood precisely what that vote entailed. If the Government lost, they would fall. The stakes were extraordinarily high: so high that some Members clambered from their sick beds to get into ambulances and make that long haul to New Palace Yard-simply in order to be nodded through. A few, I believe, put their lives on the line simply in order to do that duty. How could we countenance a system which, after such an effort and such a sacrifice, responded by saying, "Thank you, but now you have another 14 days to cool off, to change your mind"? Fourteen days of dodgy deals, 14 days of pipelines and parliamentary fixes, 14 days to deny the electorate their right to decide-and every bit of it enshrined in law. Far from the Prime Minister giving up his powers to Parliament-
Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)
My Lords, the convention is that if the Government lose a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has the option of either requesting a Dissolution or resigning. Callaghan did not have to go to the palace: he could have chosen to resign.
Lord Dobbs (Conservative)
Yes, indeed. I shall try to deal with that issue in a second.
Far from the Prime Minister giving up his powers to Parliament and the people in these provisions, he would be handing them over to party bosses operating in back rooms. I have been there and I have been one of them, and I doubt if things would become any more fragrant simply because those back rooms are no longer filled with smoke. Let us go back to something like 1979. Imagine the haggling: "No, I won't vote for you, Jim, because if I help defeat you on this no-confidence Motion, I will be able to squeeze even more out of you tomorrow".
A no-confidence Motion should be more than simply a hand at poker, with players raising the stakes both before and after the vote. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, I fear that Clause 2 as drafted would allow just that-with the players pleading that haggling is precisely what the law allows, precisely what the law approves of. Fourteen days of it: crisis, what crisis? But that is not what anyone here wants, so I urge my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace to look at this yet again. If he feels he must codify this matter of no-confidence Motions, he should ensure that this part of the Bill is made more clear. I am not against safety valves, not against 14 days in all circumstances. But 14 days should not be so inflexible that that it becomes a charter for chaos and an excuse for political fixes. What we do today in good faith must not become an excuse for excess at some future date.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate-not just for their contributions to the debate on the Floor of your Lordships' Chamber today but for all their comments and amendments, which have reflected a view to try to find a way forward. As I indicated originally at Second Reading, and certainly in Committee, the Government were willing to listen to the views of your Lordships' House. In the debate on Second Reading, I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who mentioned that you could have absolutely rigid fixed terms or the complete flexibility that we have at the moment. The rigid fixed term brings its own set of difficulties, but if you are going to have something less rigid, you have to have the mechanisms in place to provide for an early election. That is what we grappled with during our deliberations in Committee and has been reflected in our debate today.
Amendment 20 was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, with the support of the noble Lords, Lord Martin and Lord Pannick, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. It sets out an alternative version of Clause 2 and addresses a number of issues of concern, not least the Speaker's certificate and the certainty of the wording of a Motion of no confidence, both of which were raised in Committee. I am particularly grateful for the constructive way forward that has been devised by those who I know do not like the idea of fixed-term Parliaments but who nevertheless have accepted that the role of this House is to improve and revise and to bring forward amendments in that spirit. I was pleased to be able to consult not only the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Pannick, but particularly with the two former Speakers. This House has had the advantage of having their experience related to us both in Committee and in the debate this afternoon. On that basis, I have been willing to add my name in support of the amendment on behalf of the Government.
The amendment would retain the two triggers for an early general election and has clarified what a Motion of no confidence should say, and in that regard would not require a Speaker's certificate. There was also a suggestion in an earlier iteration of the amendment that perhaps there should be some reference to thejournal. Having considered it, we did not think that was appropriate either because it might then reflect other things in the journal that would be somewhat undermined by making it specific in this one. I think that that consultation bore fruit. We certainly have no desire to draw the Speaker of the House of Commons into political controversy, and therefore, given that the architecture for an early election is drawn up with a degree of certainty with no need of a Speaker's certificate, the Government are willing to support the amendment.
I will come back to the amendments to this amendment that were moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, because they raise issues that were raised by other noble Lords, but first it is important that I should address the points made by noble Lords in speaking to their amendments in the group.
Amendment 21, tabled by my noble friend Lord Norton, again would provide an alternative version of Clause 2 and retains some of the basic architecture. It sets out a mechanism to allow for an early general election in the event of a two-thirds majority on a Motion, and one to provide for an early election in the event that the Government lose the confidence of the other place and no Government who hold the confidence of the House are formed within 14 days. Having listened to the concerns expressed in this House, it is clear that there is a certain shared sense of the direction in which we have been moving. However, my noble friend seeks to provide that the failure to pass a Motion of confidence in the Government-an important distinction-should have the same effect as passing a Motion of no confidence.
Following on the specific points made about this in the Constitution Committee's report, we certainly did reflect on this long and hard. The reason why we came down against it in the end has been anticipated by my noble friend. It is that one of the objectives is to try to minimise the opportunity for manipulation. I accept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, has indicated the Deputy Prime Minister has accepted, that there is no way this is going to be foolproof, but there are some things you can do to make it more difficult. We have reached the judgment that a Motion of confidence would be easier for the Government of the day to table and then have voted down than for the Government to lose a Motion of no confidence. The noble Baroness also mentioned Germany in 2005. The position there was that there was a general consensus for an election but that they did not have a trigger mechanism to do so. However, we do provide for it where there is consensus for a Dissolution that is supported by a two-thirds majority of Members of Parliament.
My noble friend Lord Norton wishes to add a third mechanism leading to an early general election. Where a Prime Minister felt unable to continue in government, his or her resignation could bring about an early election. The Bill does not prevent a Prime Minister from resigning or tendering a resignation on behalf of the Government, but, under the Bill as it stands, an early election would not follow automatically. As I have indicated, should there be a consensus that an early election should take place, the Bill provides for this under a two-thirds Dissolution vote. However, if there is no consensus, the alternative provision-for a no-confidence vote followed by a period of 14 days' government formation-prevents a situation in which a Government stagger on without the confidence of the House.
My noble friend has suggested a government formation period of 60 days following the Prime Minister tendering the resignation of the Government. That could undermine the principle of fixed-term Parliaments by allowing the Prime Minister to trigger the government formation period at any stage in the Parliament. If one is looking at ways of minimising the opportunity for manipulation, that is one reason why we would not wish to go down that road. I also believe that 60 days is too long a period for there to be no effective Government in place. I hope that on reflection my noble friend will not-I think he indicated that he had some sympathy for the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth-press his amendment.
The amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Cormack and supported by my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom is a further variation that suggests the exact wording of the Dissolution Motion and frames the 14-day government formation period in a different way from that proposed in the Bill. It provides for two scenarios that would determine a Motion of no confidence. Where a no-confidence Motion is passed in those circumstances, the Prime Minister must request Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament.
There may be circumstances in which, within a fixed-term period, a viable, legitimate Government may be formed from the composition of the House after a no-confidence Motion. As my noble friend Lord Tyler reminded us, it is Parliament that is fixed; it is not the Government who are intended to be fixed by the legislation. The Government can exist only if they enjoy the confidence of the other place. That is why Clause 2 provides for a vote of no confidence to trigger a period of 14 days for possible government formation. If the Government have not been able to secure the confidence of the House of Commons, Parliament will be dissolved. At present, the Prime Minister decides whether, after the loss of confidence, to ask Her Majesty for Dissolution, as in 1979, or, as my noble friend Lord Norton pointed out, to resign, thereby creating the opportunity for another Government to be formed from the existing House, as in 1924.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
I know that the Minister is trying very hard, but some of us remain very concerned about this 14-day haggle period, as I would call it. Would he be prepared to insert at Third Reading, "a maximum of 14 days"?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am not sure that it is necessary to insert "maximum". Perhaps I can assure my noble friend that 14 days is a limit; it is not an expectation or a requirement. Let us take as an example the situation in 1979, after Mr James Callaghan was defeated on that famous evening in March. If, rather than saying, under existing constitutional arrangements, that he was going to the Queen to seek Dissolution and take his case to the country, he had said that he would table a Motion for Dissolution the following day and that if it was supported, as inevitably it would have been, by both parties and had two-thirds of Members voting for it, there would have been no need to wait for 14 days before the election took place. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, looks perplexed by that. Mr Callaghan could have tabled a Motion for Dissolution the following day and two-thirds of Members could have agreed.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
In these circumstances, yes. Had this Bill been in place, that could have happened. Perhaps I may reassure my noble friend Lord Cormack that 14 days is a maximum, but if there is consensus in the House that there should be an immediate election, it would be possible the following day for a Motion commanding the support of two-thirds of Members for an early election to be passed and there would be no need to wait for 14 days. I hope that is clear. It is an important point that perhaps has not always been fully appreciated; there may have been an impression that after every Motion of no confidence there would have to be a period of 14 days before there could be an election.
The proposed new power in the amendment for the other place to vote explicitly for an early Dissolution deals with the circumstances in which it would be appropriate to move directly to a Dissolution and a general election, as I have said, and there may be other circumstances. There has been some suggestion that the situation in 1951 could have led to that happening.
My noble friend also proposes that an early general election should be called if the Prime Minister tenders the resignation of the Government to Her Majesty and if within 14 days no new Prime Minister has accepted Her Majesty's invitation to form a Government. Therefore, my noble friend's amendment would still provide for an alternative Government to be formed without a general election taking place. The difference is that my noble friend's amendment would provide that a Prime Minister's decision to resign can trigger an early election, whereas the triggers that we are proposing involve a parliamentary procedure and deny, as far as is possible, the Prime Minister's ability to trigger a Dissolution against the will of Parliament. Under my noble friend's amendment it would also be possible for a Prime Minister enjoying a working majority in the other place to resign, sit out the 14 days and perhaps try to thwart the creation of another Government. We fear that that could, inadvertently perhaps, bring the sovereign into an unintended and undesirable political conflict.
Given that there is agreement to the trigger for an early election, with two-thirds voting, and my assurance that 14 days is the maximum, I hope my noble friend will be willing to withdraw his amendment.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, provides yet another model. His amendment would provide that a vote of no confidence in the Government should lead to an immediate Dissolution, and some of the comments I have already made apply to that situation. Another problem is that the only person who might have the authority to make a judgment on the fourth prong of the amendment-where the Prime Minister deemed a particular Motion to be a Motion of confidence-would be the Prime Minister. That would hand back to the Prime Minister one of the weapons that the Bill takes away from the Prime Minister. It has uncertainty attached to it and, although there is no provision in the Bill for a Speaker's certificate, some form would be needed to establish the intent and will of the Prime Minister. It could take us back into areas of legal analysis and questioning that we have tried to avoid.
The amendment would also provide that if any of the Motions set out in the clause were passed, the Prime Minister would have to seek Dissolution. That is what happened in 1979 but it is not what happened in 1924, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, noted. The answer given by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, does not meet that point because, again, it raises the question of bringing the monarch into a politically charged situation. Also, under Clause 3, the prerogative power of Dissolution is being removed and it is not clear how that situation would be dealt with. By leaving it up to the Prime Minister to decide whether any vote should be taken on a matter of confidence, the amendment would allow the Prime Minister to bring pressure to bear on Back-Benchers, a point made by my noble friend Lord Tyler. In a Bill that seeks to take power from the Prime Minister and give it to Parliament, a provision that would increase the power of the Prime Minister vis-à-vis his Back-Benchers does not sit easily. The Government believe that the amendment would, in practice, hand straight back to the Prime Minister the power to decide when to precipitate a general election. The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, is not in his place-he is chairing a committee-but, in those circumstances, I hope he will reconsider and withdraw his amendment.
The amendments tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, seek, as I understand them-as with the amendments of the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Howarth-to do away with the 14 days except where a Government have not enjoyed the confidence of the House to start with. They help to focus the issue.
In bringing forward this Bill, the Government have sought to recognise the many conventions that exist. We have sought to recognise that, in triggering an early election, we respect the two consequences which convention has it flow from a defeat by the Government on a Motion of no confidence in the House of Commons. The first is that there could be a Dissolution and the second that a new Government could be formed. The occasion in 1979 is an example of when there was a Dissolution and the one in 1924 an example of when a new Government were formed. I accept that the noble Lord's amendment seeks to deal with the situation in which the Government have been defeated in the very early days of the Parliament.
It is important to remind ourselves that it is not just the Government who are saying that this is the position. In evidence to your Lordships' Constitution Committee, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who is no fan of this Bill, said in response to a question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, on
"Under the current situation, it is possible for an alternative government to be found in those circumstances".
That is, when there has been a vote of no confidence. He went on to say:
That is, not when Mr Baldwin's Government were defeated but subsequently in 1924 when the minority Labour Government were defeated. Professor Bogdanor went on:
"The King's private secretary enquired of the other parliamentary leaders whether they were prepared to form a government and only when he was told that they weren't was a dissolution granted. If one of them had been, that alternative would have been perfectly possible under our present constitution".
We seek to maintain what is possible under the present constitution and indeed put a limit on it, because there is a limit of a maximum of 14 days to try to reform a Government. It is important that we try to maintain the existing constitutional conventions. By providing that a no-confidence Motion leads to an immediate general election in all other circumstances, we would be enshrining in statute the Executive's ability to trigger an early election, if one follows the amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord. That is complicated. In Committee, he said that he was against complication, but he seems to be complicating the matter even further if in some circumstances the 14 days would apply and in other circumstances it would not.
"We quite like the provision for two weeks-it seems sensible if an alternative coalition or Government could be formed".-[Hansard, Commons, 24/11/10; col. 361.]
Indeed, I think I am right in saying that an amendment to do otherwise-to take out the 14 days-was defeated by six votes to 498.
I fear that the noble and learned Lord's amendment could undermine the purpose of the Bill. He said at Second Reading that we should try to minimise the opportunity for manipulation. By going straight to Dissolution, you make manipulation a bit easier than if you have the 14-day provision for an alternative Government to be formed. In these circumstances, having reflected on what has been said in discussion in Committee and in today's debate, I very much hope that your Lordships will support unamended the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Labour)
My Lords, it has been a very important debate. It is absolutely clear what the critical issue is in the debate-the 14 days. As ever, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, expressed our constitution exactly accurately when she said that the Commons should be able to boot out the Government and the electorate should then determine who should be the Government. Under what this Bill proposes-the 14 days-when the Commons told Mr James Callaghan that he had to go to the country he could have said, although of course he did not, "Hold on a minute, I'll see if I can get some Ulster Unionist support or some support from these rebels and see if I can hold on for a few more months". That would have been absolutely contrary to the basic principles of our constitution which the noble and learned Lord says he wants to reflect in this new Bill.
The genesis of this Bill, if we believe Mr Nicholas Clegg-and we do believe him on this-came from his wanting to increase confidence in politicians and in Parliament. He said that one way in which it could be done would be by the public having more control over politicians. It is hard to imagine anything undermining confidence in politicians more than a situation such as the one at the beginning of 1979 when the Government were defeated, which has been described, and the Government then seeking to put together something to allow them to hold on between March and October 1979. That would, I suspect, have made the public feel that the politicians wished to hold on to power for longer. Not only does that 14-day period mean that that would be possible; it requires, in effect, that that period should be gone through.
We on the Labour side have had no part to play in putting together the variety of amendments that have been put down. I have discussed them with various people but they have, in effect, been tabled in relation to the individual views of the House. Yes, we were not so worried in the Commons about the 14 days, but we had not had the benefit of a Committee stage on the Bill in which where there was real focus on those issues. Because I detect quite a strong feeling around the House against the 14 days, the only way in which it can go wrong this afternoon is if by not choosing our amendments carefully we end up with the Government getting their way without the 14 days being there. I respectfully advise Members of the House, as I will advise my own group, to vote for my amendments, because they will ensure that the 14 days goes-except in relation to a Government who have never obtained the confidence of the House of Commons. If the 14 days is removed, I can see real force in the Government's amendment. It gets rid of the Speaker and creates some certainty about what a Motion of no confidence is, so that many of the problems will have been resolved.
If the proposed new clause were put in, as amended with my provision, the House would then be asked to vote on adding in more clauses. If the new clauses proposed by the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth, Lord Armstrong and Lord Cormack, were put in, we could have more than one Clause 2 at that point-an unusual result, it seems to me, but one that appears to be possible in the light of what the Lord Speaker said. That is what the House authorities are saying, but that result would seem to be possible only on the basis that, at Third Reading, we would have to make a choice between the various Clause 2s that were in. However, I recommend simplicity to the House: do not get us into that complication but vote for the amendment to get rid of the 14 days, which is the first vote that will be had. Then we can all comfortably rally around Amendment 20.