Fixed-term Parliaments Bill — Commons Amendment
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, during the passage of this legislation it has been evident that the Government have been prepared to consider and, indeed, to support amendments which improve the provisions of the Bill. This Bill has been refined and improved by the scrutiny to which it has been subjected both in this House and in the other place. Most notably in this House, we worked with the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, on the amendment in his name, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the distinguished former Speakers, the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, to bring forward a new version of Clause 2. We also implemented the recommendation made by your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. However, we have also consistently opposed amendments which would undermine what we believe to be the fundamental purpose of the Bill.
The Bill has now been scrutinised at length and there remains one outstanding issue to resolve: whether there should be a sunset provision. This House has now twice inserted a sunset provision, while each time the other House has voted to remove it. The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, seeks to revitalise the amendments to achieve that, reintroduce them to the Bill and impose them on the other place for a third time. The Government agree with those in the other place who oppose the sunset clause-indeed, it has been described as a sunset and sunrise clause-and I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I briefly repeat our objections.
The purpose of the Bill is to remove the Prime Minister's power to ask for a general election at a time that is most politically advantageous for his or her party. As has been expressed in our debates, a number of your Lordships believe that the Bill is simply a "fix" for this coalition, but I assure the House that that is not the case. The Government believe that there should be fixed terms and that it should be for the House of Commons to decide on the timing of an early general election and not a Prime Minister. I also remind your Lordships that the 2010 manifestos of both my party and the Labour Party included a pledge to established fixed-term Parliaments.
In his speech when visiting the Scottish Parliament in May last year, less than 72 hours after taking office, the Prime Minister made clear how significant a transfer of power this is, remarking that he was the,
"first Prime Minister in British history to give up the right unilaterally to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. This is a huge change in our system, it is a big giving up of power ... I have made that change. It's a big change and a good change".
I know that a number of noble Lords agree with that assessment. Indeed, at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, remarked that this Bill is something of a collector's item as it is an example of the Government surrendering a significant power to Parliament. My noble friend Lady Stowell also remarked that the Bill will ensure that the Government and the Opposition must face the electorate on a set date whatever way the opinion polls are pointing. In other words, the Bill creates a level playing field and will ensure that the electorate are not left waiting in limbo for a Prime Minister to decide when to call an election.
If this House were to support the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, I believe that it would be reintroducing exactly the kind of politicking that the Bill seeks to end. If each new Parliament had to resolve whether or not to serve for a fixed term-I understand that under the terms of the amendment it would be able to decide that at any time during the lifetime of a Parliament-that decision would inevitably be subject to political intrigue and made in a partisan way.
Should a future Parliament wish to move away from fixed terms, it would be free to do so by either amending or repealing the legislation-the way in which most Acts of Parliament are treated if a Government wish to overturn them. Such a constitutional change is no small matter but one that should be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny, as this Bill has been. By contrast, the sunset amendments would switch fixed terms on and off like a light switch. Parliament would default to non-fixed terms if a simple resolution failed to be tabled or if the two Houses could not agree on the matter. In our view, it is clearly not appropriate for constitutional legislation to be applied or disapplied simply as a result of passing or failing to pass, or indeed failing to table, a resolution.
I know that the members of your Lordships' Constitution Committee had misgivings about the Bill. However, in their recent report, The Process of Constitutional Change, they emphasised the need for proper scrutiny of constitutional reforms. One of their conclusions stated:
"We stress the importance of proper parliamentary scrutiny of all bills, but we do not recommend that any new parliamentary procedures such as super-majorities should apply to significant constitutional bills".
This legislation has been subject to considerable scrutiny in both Houses of Parliament. I rather suspect that if the Government had introduced in the original Bill the kind of provision that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, seeks to insert, the Procedure Committee might have given it pretty short shrift.
I do not believe that these sunset amendments would stand up to the scrutiny that one would expect if Parliament were to make an important constitutional change. They would take us into uncharted constitutional waters. They assume that it would be possible for the Prime Minister to regain the option of asking the monarch to dissolve Parliament. However, by failing to provide for the prerogative power to dissolve to be reinstated, we could be left in a position where neither the rules in the Bill nor the previous prerogative powers had effect. Indeed, it is not immediately clear whether it is possible for a prerogative power to be reinstated. Normally, once statute has "occupied the field" of the prerogative, the prerogative lapses and it is a long-standing judicial principle that new prerogatives cannot be created.
I know that many of your Lordships who supported the sunset amendments have genuine concerns about the Bill and about the concept of fixed-term Parliaments. I respect the views that have been expressed with great passion in a number of our debates. I accept that moving to a fixed-term Parliament is a significant change. Although I believe that this is a change for the better, as it transfers power from the Executive to Parliament, I acknowledge that it is a significant reform and that such reforms can often cause angst.
That is why the Government have brought forward an amendment in lieu of the amendments to sunset the Bill. It provides that the Prime Minister must make arrangements to set up a committee to review the operation of the legislation in 2020. Those arrangements would require the committee to consider the operation of the Act and, if appropriate, to make recommendations for its repeal or amendment. This would introduce a statutory requirement for post-legislative scrutiny, ensuring that the reservations that noble Lords have expressed could be considered again once we had real experience of the effects of the Bill. That is why we propose conducting the review in 2020, when we can ensure that the committee's scrutiny is informed by the experience of one Parliament whose length is fixed from beginning to end.
A majority of the members of the committee would be Members of the other place, reflecting both the primacy of the other place and the fact that they would have contested elections whose timing was determined by the Bill. Nevertheless, the amendment still leaves open the possibility of Members of your Lordships' House sitting on the committee. I believe that this will ensure that the committee's deliberations benefit from the wealth of experience and expertise on constitutional issues that resides in this Chamber.
The amendment gives categorical reassurance that the legislation will be subjected to full post-legislative scrutiny. I hope that noble Lords will agree that this is a much better solution than the sunset and sunrise provisions, which would lead to a great deal of uncertainty with voters not knowing the length of the Parliament they were electing, which could leave the statute book in some form of disarray.
I close by reflecting briefly on the role of this Chamber, and in doing so I can do no better than to quote the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. During our debate in June on the proposed reforms to your Lordships' House the noble Lord said:
"The House of Lords can and does suggest revisions of draft legislation, but it cannot in the end enforce those revisions against the will of the House of Commons. We are a revising Chamber and a debating Chamber, and valuable in both functions, but we cannot prevail against the House of Commons if it wishes to insist. The House of Commons is sovereign in the matter of law-making".-[Hansard, 22/6/11; col. 1257.]
Noble Lords have raised with the other place the matter of a sunset provision on two occasions. The other place has now twice sent us a clear message that it does not wish for a sunset provision, both times by a substantial majority. If your Lordships again insist on including sunset clauses, we would again be challenging the clearly expressed will of the elected Chamber. We believe that it would be wrong to ask the elected House to reconsider this measure for a third time, yet in this amendment in lieu the other place is providing a compromise that will ensure that the Bill is subject to post-legislative scrutiny, but without the undesirable consequences and uncertainty that come with sunset amendments.
Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)
Moved by Lord Butler of Brockwell
Leave out from "House" to end and insert "do insist on its Amendments 1, 2 and 9 and do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment 9C in lieu."
Lord Butler of Brockwell (Crossbench)
My Lords, I will not take up your Lordships' time by repeating the arguments for the sunset clause which noble Lords passed on two occasions before the Summer Recess, except to say to the Minister that it was a novelty to hear him accuse me of reintroducing politicking. I have rather been against politicking in my career. He referred to what was said by your Lordships' Constitution Committee in its report on the Bill. I should like to remind the House of that. The committee said that,
"the balance of evidence we heard"-
the committee heard evidence from a number of very distinguished academics-
"does not convince most of us that a strong enough case has yet been made for overturning an established constitutional practice and moving to fixed-term Parliaments".
The effect of the sunset clause passed by the House on two occasions was to give future Parliaments the power to decide whether they wish to make a permanent change.
Your Lordships will know that when this House has insisted on an amendment, the other place has to come back with some sort of modification to a Bill to prevent it from being lost. My noble friends and I had hoped that we might use the time during the Summer Recess to reach a reasonable agreement with the Government on a modification to the Bill. In August, my noble friend Lord Pannick had a meeting with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, and Mr Harper, the Minister in the other place. My noble friend told the Ministers that, for our part, we would be happy to modify our amendment to meet criticisms that were made of it, including some of the criticisms made by the Minister tonight. Specifically, we said, first, that we would be content for a resolution to apply the legislation to be made only by the other place since it is the elected House. Secondly, we would be content for a time limit to be placed on the period within which such a resolution should be moved-within, say, three or six months of the meeting of a new Parliament. My noble friends and I were open to discussion on other aspects of the sunset provisions.
The Ministers made it clear that these modifications were not acceptable to them, but they put forward no proposals themselves. My noble friends and I then waited to see what modification the Government would propose. Last week, without any further consultation or notification, the Government put down in another place their modification to which the Minister has referred. That modification is now before us on the Marshalled List. It goes no way towards meeting the point made by noble Lords on two occasions. The key words of the modification are:
"The Prime Minister must make arrangements ... for a committee to carry out a review of ... this Act ... Arrangements under subsection (4)(a) are to be made no earlier than
As a former Cabinet Secretary, I have had experience of Governments fobbing people off by promising reviews that effectively kick issues into the long grass, but this is of a different order. Seriously, I have to say to the noble and learned Lord that if the Government's amendment is intended to meet the point which your Lordships have legitimately made, it is an insult. It shows a contempt for your Lordships' House and for the amendments we have passed.
There is still time to reach a reasonable agreement that will satisfy the point which this House has twice made, but I am afraid that this can happen only if noble Lords once more insist on the amendment and we can have sensible discussions. I beg to move.
Lord Pannick (Crossbench)
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. Your Lordships will not want to hear lengthy Second Reading speeches at this stage, but it needs to be understood that because this House and the other place have disagreed twice, the Government are obliged either to accept our amendments, lose the Bill, or produce a variation-what Erskine May describes as "alternative proposals". The procedure is designed to ensure that the Government and the Commons cannot simply ignore what we have decided. Your Lordships have heard what the Government have produced by way of alternative proposals: that there should be a committee which will not begin its consideration for another nine years. That is not so much kicking the issue into the long grass, the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, as burying it in a time capsule. The authors of "Yes Minister" would have regarded it as lacking in credibility to suggest, even in a work of fiction, that a Minister should solve a problem by setting up a committee which would begin its work in nine years' time.
The Minister suggested that there is some constitutional novelty in the provision approved by noble Lords, but many legislative provisions have attracted such a procedure: there is the need to consider each year whether to maintain the late and unlamented control order system; and Parliament requires that the Armed Forces Act be reconsidered every five years. The Minister suggested that the House should accept the views of the House of Commons and that we should go quietly into the night on this issue. He emphasised that we are a revising Chamber and that we cannot challenge the will of the elected House. But the relationship between this House and the other place depends on the other place and, indeed, the Government taking seriously the concerns we have expressed.
The response of the Government and the other place to our amendments is simply derisory, and it is intended to be so. The Commons and the Government are not listening to or engaging with your Lordships' House, and I regret that. Just as the Government introduced this legislation without bothering to consult anyone or to adopt any pre-legislative scrutiny, they are now rejecting the views of this House without bothering to listen to and engage with us. We should ask the House of Commons to think again on this matter.
Lord Howarth of Newport (Labour)
While I appreciate the constructive response that the Minister gave to the proposals by this House to redraw Clause 2, I have to say that the Government's response to the Motion spoken to so well today by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, is not only inadequate, it is indeed contemptuous. Whether we talk of long grass, time capsules or the deep freeze, it simply will not do. The seriously considered advice of your Lordships' House ought equally seriously to be considered by Ministers and by the other place. It should not be dismissed with reflex reactions. That is a matter of constitutional principle.
It is also a matter of constitutional principle that legislation that proposes constitutional change should be subjected to ample and early consultation, through a Green Paper, through full preliminary debate-debate outside this House across the country, as well as within Parliament-and then to a White Paper before legislation is introduced to Parliament, let alone being voted on in a whipped vote. I add that in my view it is questionable whether it is suitable for constitutional legislation to be subject to the Whip.
The Government actually agree, or say they agree, that pre-legislative scrutiny is a good thing. In its report on the process of constitutional change, the Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House-the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who chairs it, is in her place-described the process that is appropriate for the consideration of proposals for constitutional legislation, and explained the importance of that process being followed. Indeed, in its report it actually quoted its own report on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, in which it had said:
"Process is critical in terms of upholding, and being seen to uphold, constitutional values: particularly those of democratic involvement and transparency in the policy-making process. Moreover, we believe that a proper process is the foundation upon which successful policy is built: the lack of a proper process makes an ineffective outcome more likely".
There was no good reason why a proper process was not adopted by the Government for this legislation. There was no genuine hurry to get this legislation on to the statute book. It did not need to be done in the first Session. But the Government neglected to follow due procedures. During our proceedings a very good case has been made by noble Lords on all sides of the House that legislating to introduce fixed-term Parliaments, and particularly Parliaments fixed for a term of five years-which means that general elections will occur less frequently in the future than they have in the past-contrary to the Government's professed intentions, would reduce the accountability of the Executive to Parliament, not increase it. It would impair our democracy, not enhance it.
We should, therefore, insist on the amendment that we have already sent to the other place twice. This would be the third time. That is relatively unusual, but the Constitution Committee, again in that same report on the process of constitutional change, observed that,
"constitutional legislation is qualitatively different from other legislation"-
and I believe there is a very good case for this. As the committee also pointed out, there is a lack of checks and balances to prevent a Government armed with a majority in the House of Commons from changing the constitution of this country more or less at whim. This House should seek to act as a check and a balance, as well as we can, on issues of such importance as this.
An appropriate process was not followed by the Government. This constitutional legislation is highly contentious; it would introduce a major innovation into our constitution. It is the responsibility of your Lordships' House to be vigilant to safeguard the constitution. It is entirely right, therefore, that we should adjure the House of Commons to think again.
The amendment that we have already twice sent to the other place provides a convenient and practical means whereby subsequent Parliaments should have the opportunity to judge whether indeed they wish each new Parliament to be fixed for five years, or whether they judge it preferable to revert to the historic arrangements that we have had in this country, of flexibility in terms of the date of the election within five years, which has enabled government and Parliament to be responsive to political reality in all its unpredictability, and to be more accountable to the people.
Lord Armstrong of Ilminster (Crossbench)
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for quoting my words from a different debate and I do not resile from a single word of that. None the less, I join my noble friends Lord Butler and Lord Pannick in hoping that the House will insist on this amendment, which has now already been passed twice by this House, by a larger majority the second time than the first.
I will be a little kinder to the Government than my noble friends have been. This proposal by the Government, the Commons amendment in lieu, does at least agree that there should be a review. But it is a rather scrawny baby that they have delivered to us, and they will not allow us to turn the tap on for the bath until 2020-nine years. The baby will look very scrawny at the end of that time, and the water may be rather cold.
If it is right that this be reviewed, as we think it is, and as the Government and the House of Commons now seem to think, then why should we have to wait until after the election after the next election? Surely it makes sense that we should review it as proposed in the amendment which we have already agreed, and which my noble friend Lord Butler has reintroduced, and look at it again at the end of the current Parliament. It can then be passed on to the next Parliament if that is what people want to do at that time. But at least it should be reviewed at the end of the Parliament, to take stock, and see where we go from there.
Lord Grocott (Labour)
I cannot understand why the Government could not have done the simple thing for this House, and for the integrity of our constitution, and simply said yes to this amendment. What on earth would the Government have lost by saying yes? They would have had the five-year Parliament that they, for whatever motives-we will not go into those-want for this Parliament. If there is a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat Government or a Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government elected in five years' time, they could ensure that this legislation remained on the statute book and that there was another five-year Parliament after that. It would have cost the Government nothing. The Government would have lost nothing and they would at least have shown that they were listening to some of the advice from this House.
I am not thrilled by this amendment, although I thought it was very ably moved, because I just do not like five-year Parliaments, and I do not like acknowledging that the Government, with a relatively flaky coalition, should be able to legislate for themselves to survive for five years in this way. But the reason I very much hope that the House sticks to its position, requiring any future Government or Parliament to look again at this issue, is that I am convinced that, should this Bill go without any amendment now and become an Act, we will have five-year Parliaments ad infinitum and no future Government will repeal this legislation. This gives the lie to the oft-repeated argument that somehow or other this is a Government giving something away. Why on earth would any future Government want to give up the security of a five-year term of office? Of course they would not; it is very convenient to Governments; it is very convenient to the Executive. This is the last chance. I hope that my own party will win the election, and I hope that it will have in its manifesto the decision to repeal this legislation, but I rather fear that it would be as attracted to the idea of remaining in office for five years as this Government. This is the safety net-that it requires Governments to make that decision.
I make an appeal to the Minister. It really is worth listening to what this House has to say on constitutional issues. We are just seeing the first fruits-I should say the second fruits-of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, which was so strongly opposed in this House. It was strongly opposed on the ground of the unnecessary nature of a referendum on the alternative vote system, which, incidentally, I have just discovered in a reply from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, cost us £97 million in total, at a time when we are supposed not to have two pennies to rub together. I was very pleased with the result, but it was not worth £97 million for a few of us in this House and a few million people in the country to be pleased. We told the Government that it was a waste of time and a waste of money-we were right. We also said that reducing the number of MPs by 50 would not bring an advantage to our democracy and that it would be deeply destabilising. I would love the Minister to give me his assessment of what he thinks Members of the House of Commons would have to say now on a free vote in a secret ballot. Would they think that a Bill that has destabilised every constituency in Britain was a terrific one? If I were to write the Government a little resumé or memoir, which I will not, of the activities in which some of us have indulged in the past 12 months or so, I would have to call it "I Told You So" or "It's Boring Being Right" or something along those lines. On constitutional matters-let me put it modestly-we are at least worth listening to. I do wish that the Government would listen to us on this one.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, very wisely did not mention among his justifications for five-year fixed Parliaments, or Parliaments of any fixed period, that they enable Governments sensibly to introduce legislative programmes over their period of office. I would like to challenge him to state that the Government are on course for doing that. Here we have five years, which is a year longer than any Government normally have for certain, and a two-year Session, but I would not say-again, I shall put it as kindly as I can-that we see a Rolls-Royce legislative planned operation going through. So I ask him not to use that as a defence of security of tenure and security of planning. But, above all, I ask the Minister, not with great hope or expectation, to acknowledge that we were not completely unworthy of being listened to over previous constitutional legislation and, even at this late date, not to commit the country to five-year fixed-term Parliaments ad infinitum as this legislation assuredly will-because that is precisely what any Government would want.
Lord Elystan-Morgan (Crossbench)
My Lords, I wish simply to make one point which I consider, very humbly, to be a pertinent matter and one which constitutes a backcloth to the issue before the House. The point was tangentially mentioned in earlier debates that this was not a matter which could be made the subject of the operation of the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, but no one has argued in full as to its constitutional significance.
That Parliament saw fit in 1911 to make that so, and decided not to change the situation in 1949, is highly relevant to this issue. I would go so far as to suggest that it changes the whole balance of the relationship between the two Houses. I of course agree absolutely with what the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said about the general primacy of the House of Commons as the elected Chamber over this place. My submission is that, in relation to this matter, all such conventions and all such inhibitions are totally removed. Section 1 of the Parliament Act 1911 excludes two matters from its operation. The first was money Bills, which of course did not come into it in the first instance, and the second was a Bill which prolonged to any degree the maximum life of Parliament. Clause 1(5) of this Bill does exactly that. It enables the Prime Minister of the day either to reduce the period of five years by up to two months or to add to it by two months. It does not matter, therefore, whether it is two months, two years or 20 years; a wall has been breached, a wall created by the House of Commons in protection of its own position and the position of democratic government altogether. It made this House the sentinel of that boundary. In other words, when we disagree with regard to this matter, it is utterly exceptional as compared with any other disagreement. We are far from challenging the authority of the House of Commons; we are abiding by it and making it real and entrusted.
Baroness Jay of Paddington (Labour)
My Lords, several noble Lords this evening have referred-somewhat kindly, I must say-to the report of the Constitution Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, on the process of constitutional change. The Minister was kind enough to refer to it in his opening remarks. I look forward to the Government's formal response to the report. It will enable the House to have a proper debate on the report, to which I equally look forward.
I suspect that the committee will be very surprised, as am I in immediate response to what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, to hear the content of the exchanges during the Summer Recess between the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in support of his original amendment. That seems to illustrate precisely, when we hear what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said, the inadequacy of process within the Government as related to constitutional matters. If it is the case that the noble Lord, Lord Butler, as he suggested and as was confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, came forward with what sounded like rather appropriate substitutions and amendments to his original amendment, particularly regarding the question of when such a sunset clause could be introduced in the new Parliament as well as the other questions which he mentioned, I am very surprised that the Government did not respond to them in the way that has been suggested and, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said, simply put down the amendment in lieu that we have before us tonight. This is another illustration of precisely the problems about constitutional process to which the Constitution Committee's full report tried to draw attention. As I have said, I hope that the report will be fully debated in the House.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Conservative)
My Lords, I support the Motion of my noble and learned friend the Minister. Before I explain in brief terms why I do so, I want to say how much respect I have for the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. As I have said on previous occasions, he was the Cabinet Secretary when I was a civil servant in Downing Street. I know from first-hand experience what a wise, astute and reasonable man he is, but, on this occasion, I disagree with him. I can perhaps best explain why by answering the question asked by my noble friend Lord Forsyth in the previous round of ping-pong. He asked the Minister why he thought that the Bill was a step forward in restoring public confidence and trust in the political system. With all due respect to the Minister, I think that that was a challenge too far. It is a shame that my noble friend Lord Forsyth is not in his place, but to answer his question-this is my reason for supporting the Motion to accept the Commons amendments and not to introduce a sunset or sunrise clause-I think that five-year fixed-term parliaments offer three things. The change proposed is real, relevant and a bit radical.
When I say real, I mean that the Prime Minister is giving up some real power so that the public will know that the Government and all political parties will have to face the electorate on a pre-determined date regardless of the political conditions at that time. It is relevant because that action is a direct response to the issue that we are responding to, which is the public's distrust in this political system. It is a sad fact, but what the public told us following the MPs' expenses scandal back in 2008 was that there was a lack of trust in our political system. The public wanted some evidence of us making an attempt to restore that trust. That we are giving up this power and making sure that in the future an election will happen in that way is a direct response that is relevant.
The proposal is a bit radical because we do not do that very often. We are not often enough real and we are not often relevant. It is also a bit radical rather than a lot radical because while we might see this as a massive constitutional issue, to the world outside it is a small concession. It means that we are providing certainty to the electorate. People will know every five years when the election will be. But it is important because it is tangible change.
Baroness Boothroyd (Crossbench)
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I am sure that she was here when we had the Second Reading on the Bill. Perhaps she spoke on it: I think that I did. We have also had Committee stage where we dealt with amendments. Many noble Lords used Second Reading speeches at that stage. Today, we are dealing with a very specific area that is on the Order Paper. We have had a lot of Second Reading speeches during debates on this Bill and I think that we ought now to restrict our comments to what is precisely on the Order Paper before us.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston (Conservative)
I am about to conclude. It is important to make these points because I believe that the amendment that has been moved by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, affects the very heart of the Bill. That is why it is necessary for me to make these points.
If the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is accepted by the House, we will no longer be putting forward to the electorate change that is real, relevant and radical. We will actually be doing something that is quite predictable. On that basis, I support my noble and learned friend the Minister and I hope that we do not accept the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell.
Lord Alderdice (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I have listened with some care to what previous noble Lords have said. It has been very thoughtful and I am not surprised that the noble Lords, Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Armstrong, take the view that they do. They are exactly the kind of recommendations that any good senior civil servant would give to the Prime Minister, which is, "Hold on to whatever power you have because it seems little enough at times". I understand that.
But it is a mistake to suggest that the response of the other place is disrespectful. I do not think that it is. It is disagreement. There is a fundamental disagreement between those who take the view that a fixed-term Parliament is in the interests of the Parliament and of the people and those who take the view that it would be best to stick with what we have. Of course, this House and the other place felt it completely appropriate to have fixed-term arrangements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Most other places around the world think that it is a good idea. It is not outlandish. Colleagues in the other place and noble Lords on the other Benches stood for election to the other place. It is not something that came suddenly out of the blue, like getting rid of the Lord Chancellor, for example. That was not thought through terribly enormously or consulted on. There is a disagreement. Some of us take the view that a fixed-term Parliament where you elect someone and say, "You will be elected for this period of time to do this job", is the right way to do it.
The question that has now been raised is, "Is the amendment that has come back from the other place a fair and reasonable one or a scrawny child?". It does not seem to me unreasonable that one should wait for the passage of two terms of Parliament, which is after all what we are talking about. To simply return to the question in a month or two tells you nothing about whether this approach is reasonable. Sometimes one has to take time to think one's way through and see if what you have is genuinely a change for the better or worse.
It is clear that there is an intellectually honest disagreement. Noble Lords here have understandable points, but it is not the case that the Government are seeking to be disrespectful. Rather, they are saying, "We do not agree with this and so, having listened to what the House of Lords has said, we have said that we appreciate that but we think that post-legislative scrutiny after two mandates is a reasonable way to address the issue". I appeal to noble Lords to see it in that light and give the other place the primacy that is appropriate in this context.
Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield (Crossbench)
My Lords, I listened with great attention to the Minister a moment ago and I think that I detected an anxiety on his part that the royal prerogative on the dissolution of Parliament would somehow be thrown into confusion. Her Majesty the Queen graciously places her prerogative at the disposal of Parliament every time the question arises. She always has and always will. I hope that the Minister will elaborate on the anxieties if indeed I am right to detect them in what he said, but I cannot see the problem about the Queen's personal prerogative of dissolution being revived on a vote of the House of Commons if the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is passed. There is no constitutional dilemma at all here. Perhaps he has better advice than I have and perhaps he could elaborate in a moment or two.
Lord Bach (Labour)
My Lords, I do not intend to take up much time of the House. Our position remains the same. We support the amendment. It still seems to us to be a practical and sensible proposal that is generous to the Government and gives them their five-year term of this Parliament but takes account of the substantial concern and suspicion that there is about the Bill across both Houses of Parliament. Noble Lords may have seen that, last week in the House of Commons, at least seven Conservative Members of Parliament voted against the Government on this issue.
What is Her Majesty's Government's argument? Put by a junior Minister at the Cabinet Office, the honourable Mr Harper, last week, it is effectively that the Cross-Bench amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, is unconstitutional. Anyone reading Mr Harper's speech from last week and looking at the ridiculous amendment proposed by the Government would be struck by the frankly patronising, even insulting, manner in which he addresses the Cross-Bench amendment. It is perhaps a little cheeky for a junior Minister to attempt to patronise two ex-Cabinet Secretaries, a very distinguished ex-Speaker of the House of Commons and one of our leading constitutional legal experts, but that is what he chose to do. That insult, or patronisation, pales into insignificance compared with the pure chutzpah in this Government protesting about the way in which constitutional change takes place. If the right reverend prelate will forgive me, it is a bit like Satan preaching against sin.
Where, both in this Bill and in its now notorious predecessor, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011-whose absurd consequences we can all see this week, and the Liberal Democrat Benches more than most-was there, first, any pre-legislative scrutiny? Secondly, where was there any draft legislation? Thirdly, where was there any suggestion in the Conservative Party's manifesto for the last election of supporting fixed-term Parliaments? Indeed, I recall-and I am sure the Minister will correct me if I am wrong-the Prime Minister himself, before the election, insisting that there must be a general election whenever a new Prime Minister took office. That is the complete opposite of what is proposed in this Bill. Where is there the search for consensus? Where, in short, is there any of that care, caution and concern for our past, present and future which should always be part of constitutional change? The answer of course is that there was none, and our country will pay the price for such hurried and careless law-making.
The Government criticise the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, saying that the sunset clause is not suitable in a constitutional Bill, forgetting, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, reminded us a few minutes ago, that, when in opposition, both parties demanded-quite rightly, in many cases-sunset clauses in constitutional matters affecting citizens' civil liberties. In short, there is absolutely nothing unconstitutional.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (Liberal Democrat)
Will the noble Lord help me on this? Does he agree that this sunset clause is not just a sunset clause but also a sunrise clause, in the sense that the matter can be brought back in any subsequent Parliament, for the duration of that Parliament alone, so that effectively the difference between this clause and other sunset clauses-that is, the clauses proposed by the amendment-is to leave the country and the electorate in a state of permanent uncertainty, and to deprive the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, as it would be, of any force whatever to that effect?
Lord Bach (Labour)
I disagree entirely with the noble Lord's point. But I will ask why in that case he thinks that the Government that he supports did not support the suggestion that the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Pannick, made to the Government during the Recess. What was wrong with it, as far as the Government were concerned?
To sum up, there is absolutely nothing unconstitutional about this proposal. Frankly, there was much more unconstitutionality in the way this Bill was dreamed up by the two parties in the coalition as a way of protecting their own party interests-and if one wants proof of that, one only has to look at page 98 of the right honourable David Laws' book 22 Days in May. For all these reasons, the House should not take any lessons from this Government on constitutional propriety. We will be supporting the amendment.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, anyone who had never known any of the history of this, listening to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, would probably be astounded to learn that the Labour Party supported the idea of fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto, as far back as 1992-
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
The argument that, because Labour lost, that devalues the principle is not one I have fully understood. The noble Lord seemed to suggest that the Prime Minister had completely set his face against fixed-term Parliaments. In a speech entitled "Fixing Broken Politics" which my right honourable friend the then Leader of the Opposition made on
"But I believe the arguments for fixed-term Parliaments are strengthening too. Because if we want Parliament to be a real engine of accountability, we need to show that it is not just the creature of the executive. That's why a Conservative Government will seriously consider the option of fixed-term Parliaments when there is a majority government".
So I think it is wrong to say that this is something that the Prime Minister had totally set his face against in opposition. There was a commitment in the Conservative manifesto to look at areas of the exercise of the royal prerogative.
Can I start by picking up the points which my noble friend Lord Alderdice made? I think he put his finger on it when he said that this is not disrespect but disagreement. It is a genuine disagreement, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would agree that when Mr Mark Harper and I met him it was quite clear that there was a gulf between us. Two propositions were put to us, which would have addressed what we had identified as some of the technical-indeed, more than technical-problems of the amendment, but did not actually address what we believed to be a fundamental problem with the amendment, which is that it undermines the actual core purpose of the Bill. This Bill is the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, in the plural. It is not a Bill to have a fixed-term Parliament for this Parliament, the one elected in May 2010, but rather one to have fixed-term Parliaments into the future, all this of course being subject to the right of any Parliament to repeal the legislation of a predecessor Parliament. That is why there is a fundamental difference.
Therefore it is not disrespect, and I can assure your Lordships that I would not wish to be disrespectful to genuinely held views. I think some people do not believe that having a fixed-term Parliament is right, but they will allow us to make some fix for this Parliament. In fact I think that what happens with the amendment is that it leaves us in the position of having the potential of a fix for every future Parliament. It is not putting this on a permanent basis; it is an amendment which could allow the powers to lapse, and then be revived again in a subsequent Parliament after 2020, or whenever-if the powers had lapsed, it might not necessarily last the full five years. The incoming Parliament following that election could revive the powers, or again, after a subsequent election, it could let them lapse. We do not believe that that is a particularly good way of legislating with regard to the constitution. It is literally switching the light on and switching the light off again.
That is why-if I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy-I have a concern about the nature of the royal prerogative. The existence of the royal prerogative would then appear to be dependent upon the resolutions of each House not being carried. It does not seem very desirable that the prerogative may sometimes not exist, and then sometimes be revived. That may not be the drafter's intention, but it is not clear what he has achieved in the drafting. In particular, the presumption of Section 16 of the Interpretation Act 1978 is that where an enactment of temporary duration-which the provisions abrogating the dissolution of prerogative appear to be-expires, it does not ordinarily revive anything not in force at the time of the expiry. I think there is a genuine concern there. In matters so important as the royal prerogative, the idea that it can be revived, then allowed to lapse and then revived again is not particularly satisfactory.
I shall now pick up the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the Parliament Act. It is something we have always acknowledged and recognised. The reason why the Parliament Acts would not apply in this case is nothing to do with the concept of fixed-term Parliaments. As he rightly pointed out, it is a provision in the Bill: in response to this House we deleted the part that would allow the election to be brought forward by two months, but there was still a provision there to extend it by two months. That takes it over the five years-the arguments for that were debated well at the time-as happened also in 2001 with the outbreak of foot and mouth. It is also important to point out that your Lordships' Delegated Powers Committee actually said that it thought it was a proper power, but recommended that we should have a Written Statement from the Prime Minister as to why the power was being exercised-a recommendation which we accepted. I do not think that is an issue about which there is any real dispute. It goes to the heart of whether or not we should have fixed-term Parliaments.
That takes me to the core issue; and, I say again, we are not being disrespectful. When one is proposing a review that will not take place until 2020, it is very easy to talk about long grass, time capsules or scrawny babies. However, it would be even more disrespectful-frankly ludicrous-to ask a committee to examine a fixed-term Parliament when there had not been one. I take the strictures and advice that I got from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who said he was glad that I had not advanced the argument about the planning of government business. However, until this legislation is passed, this is not a fixed-term Parliament. Therefore, it is not reasonable to suggest that the example of this Parliament could ever be described as a proper, normal fixed-term Parliament. Many of us have advanced arguments during the debates as to why we think there ought to be a fixed-term Parliament; and, indeed, why they ought to be five years rather than four-an issue which no doubt a post-legislative review could finalise. We will only know whether the case for the beneficial effects has been made out when we have actually had the experience of one fixed-term Parliament elected as a fixed-term Parliament and seeing through its term; or, for that matter, had an early election because of some event that has triggered the mechanism in Clause 2.
I do not consider that an insult. If you are going to do proper pre-legislative scrutiny, make sure that you are scrutinising something that has actually happened-that you have actually got a piece of material, or evidence, on which you can actually base informed scrutiny.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I look upon it as post-legislative scrutiny. You cannot scrutinise what you have legislated for until it has happened. We will not have had a fixed-term Parliament that has run its full course until 2020. It is as simple as that.
Baroness Jay of Paddington (Labour)
I ask the noble Lord, through the Minister, whether it is therefore the Government's position that all the arguments and discussions we had about no-confidence Motions-as they related historically and as they will, presumably, be affected under the fixed-term Parliament legislation-will not apply to this Parliament before 2015.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
That is not the case, as we know. I was making the point that this Parliament was not elected as a fixed-term Parliament. I am sure if the noble Baroness thinks about it, she will appreciate this. The arguments, I recall, when we debated the benefits of four or five years and whether it would affect the legislative plan of Governments coming into office, were that this would not happen with this Parliament, as that was not the basis on which it was elected. I am saying that you really need the experience of a full fixed-term Parliament to see whether the claims that have been made for it have been borne out. Therefore there is no way that is disrespectful-it is the only time you can have a meaningful post-legislative review, unless you are simply going to have an academic one rather than one based properly on experience.
I say again that I believe that this House has made an important contribution to this Bill and that its shape-in particular the trigger mechanisms for an early election-is vastly better because of the debates that we had. This Government are prepared to listen and have shown their willingness to do so. However, we cannot agree to something that we believe actually goes to the heart of the Bill and undermines one of its central purposes. For that reason, we cannot agree with the Motion as proposed, but we believe that it is proper and right to have a proper post-legislative review; one which, if the fixed-term Parliaments take their normal course, would have to be started within just over one month after the election or no later than six months after that. There is a set time limit under which the Prime Minister would have to make the necessary arrangements. On that basis, I commend that amendment in lieu to the House.
Lord Butler of Brockwell (Crossbench)
I thank those who have taken part in this debate. I particularly say to the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that of course I accept that this is a disagreement-a disagreement on a very important constitutional matter, on which, I think, everybody agrees there has not been the normal preparation for a major change on a constitutional matter. That is the argument for allowing a sunrise clause, which will allow the next Parliament to take a view, in the light of further deliberation, consideration and consultation, and, indeed, of experience. Those who read the debate in the House of Commons last week will know that there are views on both sides of that House on this matter. As has been said, both on the government and the opposition side, there is concern about, and opposition to, the Bill as it stands.
The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said, in his very eloquent way, that the House of Lords never has to give way to this Bill, strictly speaking, because it is not covered by the Parliament Act. I sincerely hope that it does not come to that but, in the House of Commons debate last week, it was a Conservative Member who-making the point that the Bill is not covered by the Parliament Act-said that the House of Lords can hold out indefinitely if necessary. I am not arguing for that at all but would like to have the sort of serious discussions with the Government on a serious constitutional matter that so far-I am sorry to say-the Government have not been prepared to have. In the House of Commons last week, the Labour spokesman said of the Member who pointed to the effect of the Parliament Act:
"The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: your lordships, stand firm".-[Hansard, Commons, 8/9/11; col. 592.]
I very much hope that the House of Lords tonight will stand firm, with a view to enabling meaningful discussions with the Government on this important constitutional matter. I beg to test the opinion of the House.