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Fixed Term Parliaments Bill

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 1:14 pm on 16th May 2008.

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Order for Second Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice 1:20 pm, 16th May 2008

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

It is difficult to believe that last year the whole political and media establishment of this country spent more than two months doing little else but speculating about whether there would be a general election and when it would occur. By the end of it, people had become experts in the most extraordinarily arcane subjects, such as the likelihood of rain on particular Thursdays in November, the hours of daylight in that month, or the details of precisely when the electoral registers were compiled. In the end, the only way one could have guessed that the Prime Minister was going to bottle out, as the inelegant phrase of the time had it, was if one understood that if he were to go to the palace at the time that he was rumoured to be doing so, there would not be enough time to turn off all the Members' computers in the Palace of Westminster. We therefore knew at that point that there was not going to be a general election. The political system was reduced to a sort of guessing game. That seems to be a bizarre way to run a country. One has to be some kind of Hercule Poirot to work out whether there is going to be a general election.

That entire episode was, of course, subsequently disastrous to the Prime Minister's own political reputation, but it was also ridiculous and damaging to the whole country and to the political system itself. As a consequence, I went back to an old proposal from my party that in future Prime Ministers should not have the power to decide when general elections should be held but that the parliamentary term should be fixed by law. The current position, as everyone in this House will understand, is that the Government can in effect call an election whenever they want within the five-year term of Parliament. If the Government win that election they get another five years, and the whole thing starts again.

The first and most obvious thing wrong with that arrangement is that it gives an enormous unfair advantage to the incumbent party. It is rather like having a 100 m race in which one of the runners has the starting pistol, and can occasionally use it to shoot one of the other runners. The incumbent need wait only for a few favourable polls and call an election within a three-and-a-half week period and is then rewarded with another five years in power. That makes politics rather more a matter of luck than of performance. As we all know, in political life there are times when Governments are blamed for events entirely beyond their control, but there are also times when they receive the credit for events that equally had nothing to do with them.

Of course, if the Prime Minister had called the election last autumn and won it on the basis of a bit of luck about foot and mouth or the floods not being the disastrous administrative episode that they might have been, we would now be facing another five years of him. I am not sure whether that prospect would be very attractive to the country, to his party, or, sadly, to himself. Our system can produce unfortunate results for all concerned, and it is the ultimate in incumbency advantage.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the point about incumbency. Are the Liberal Democrats in favour of this Bill because for nearly a century they have not had an incumbent Prime Minister, and have no prospect of having one for the next century? At least the Labour party and the Conservative party have a fairly equal chance of having an incumbent Prime Minister at some time.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Lady's remarks are on the record to haunt her in future decades. A point against the present system is that it favours richer parties, which can raise funds to fight general elections more than once every four or five years. There may be something in what the hon. Lady says, but only because of the unfortunate way in which we fund political parties in this country.

The second reason the present system should be got rid of is that it interferes with good government. It is said that fixed-term systems produce a political cycle in which Governments cause pain—necessary pain, they would say—in the first part of their term, but move to pleasure in the second part. At least that cycle is obvious to the electorate. In a non-fixed term system, things are worse because in effect we have a convention of four-year Parliaments, with all the disadvantages of a fixed term, but with the possibility of periodic panics where the idea that an election might be in the offing leads to immobility in government. It might not be a bad thing if the Government were to do less, so perhaps immobility might be a good thing in some circumstances, but it is not good if it prevents the Government from working on particular projects.

I have one specific example with which I was involved last summer. The Climate Change Bill got through a Joint Committee in July and was supposed to appear well before the new Session of Parliament. It was supposed to be debated extensively in this House early in the new year. As far as I can tell, no work at all was done on the Bill during the summer; the whole process was massively delayed. It has gone through the other place, but has yet to appear in this place. Having a system of occasional, months-long speculation about whether there will be an election leads to stop-start, boom-and-bust politics. It would be much better to have a regular rhythm.

The intervention from Mrs. Laing was interesting, because another disadvantage of the present system—I am being stared at by a number of Whips at this point—is that it adds to the Government's power over their Back Benchers. The threat to recalcitrant rebels that if they vote the wrong way, they might bring the Government down, leading to a general election, has been heard recently in our political lives. The general election gives the ruling party an interesting threat to make to its own Members—that they might find themselves not selected for the subsequent election.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

I am listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's arguments. He might be coming on to this, but I have been trying to see where in his Bill there would be provision for an earlier election if, for example, there were some emergency. If a Government were to lose a substantial vote, that should trigger a general election. Would that be covered by his Bill?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I will indeed go into that later, but the point that my Bill tries to make is that to hold a general election in those circumstances should require a greater consensus among the political parties in the House of Commons and the other place than merely a decision by the Government of the day. The power to call an election in such circumstances still exists and must exist, but should it lie with the House or with the Government? I say that it should lie with Parliament.

The fourth reason for rejecting the present system is that it leads to a rather silly macho style of politics, as we saw last autumn when the debate was effectively reduced to a version of "Come on and try it if you're hard enough". We ended up with a game of political chicken between the parties, each trying to outdo the other in showing that it did not fear a general election. The outcome was very nearly a general election that no party really wanted, and it is extraordinary that that situation was allowed to arise.

Part of what was going on last year is another reason for rejecting the present system. Certain elements in the media wanted an election, and tried to encourage the parties to vie with another in their eagerness for one. That was because newspapers tend to sell more copies during general elections. I want us to resist the underlying thesis that politics has become simply part of the entertainment industry. The power of Governments to call elections is definitely entertaining, but it does not strike me as good governance.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that last year there was a perfectly legitimate reason for a general election to be held? The premiership had changed. The Labour party had the privilege of electing the new Prime Minister, but the rest of Parliament and the people of the country had not had an opportunity to do so. We can discuss later whether it would have been right to hold a general election, but there was a perfectly legitimate reason for some commentators and Members of Parliament to say that there should have been a general election. If the hon. Gentleman's Bill became law, that would not be possible. Under a fixed-term system, if the leadership of the governing party changed there would be no opportunity to hold a general election, and therefore a plebiscite on the new Prime Minister.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is not exactly true, for reasons that I shall explain later—they relate to the answer that I gave Mr. Randall—but even if it were true, I do not think the hon. Lady would be right. I know that the leadership of my own party made a point similar to hers last year, but I do not agree with it, because I consider that we are a parliamentary rather than a presidential democracy. I think that the idea that every time there is a change at the top there must be an election takes us in the wrong direction, down the road of a presidential system. I prefer our traditional parliamentary system.

That brings me to my next point, which relates to what happens in other countries and elsewhere in our own country. It is true that fixed terms are far from universal. I do not claim that the fixed-term system is the one that everyone else uses, and that we are out of line. There is a division of opinion in mature democracies. In France, for instance, there are no fixed terms: the President can dissolve the Assembly at will. The best known example of a fixed-term system is the system in the United States, which has strict fixed terms with no escape clause. That, however, is not the normal way in which fixed terms are arranged in mature democracies. There is normally a fixed term, but also some mechanism for escaping from a form of political deadlock. If stable government becomes impossible, most fixed-term systems involve some way out of that deadlock, although it usually requires a much broader political consensus than simply a decision by the Government to call an election. In Germany, for example, there is quite a complicated mechanism, whereas in Spain there is a very simple mechanism: a four-year fixed term, and if they cannot get a new Prime Minister within two months of the election another election is held; the Government have no power in the process. There is a similar idea in the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 2006: the Scottish Parliament sits for four years and the only exception is if a new First Minister cannot be found within 28 days, and there is a similar system for Wales.

There is another type of system, the best example of which is in Sweden. There are regular elections every four years. The Government can call extra elections, but if they do so they do not get a new four-year term; they get only the end of the previous term. Therefore, they cannot cause the regular four-year election cycle to stop, which reduces their incentive to try to take a short-term advantage.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

I am fascinated to hear about that; is that option used much in Sweden, and what is the purpose of it?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

It is not used often, and I fear that Governments might use it to clear out the rebellious Members whom they no longer wish to be in their party, which might be an attractive option for a Whip.

Local authorities in our country offer another example. They are on strict fixed terms, which encourage parties to work together. There is a legitimate question to ask those who favour the current system at national level: why are they not therefore calling for it to be extended to local government? Why not say that the leader of a county council or London borough may call a council election whenever they feel like doing so? That is such an absurd proposition that it throws into doubt the reasons of those people who want to maintain the present system at national level.

The principle of the Bill, which I hope will be endorsed on Second Reading, is simple: that elections should happen on a regular cycle that cannot be changed by purely ministerial action. Everything else in the Bill is detail, which I would be happy to discuss in Committee. I fear that some of the details might not be popular in some parts of the House, but I will be happy to discuss them at a later stage.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I just want to let the hon. Gentleman know that he has my support at least for one small detail of the Bill. I and most of my hon. Friends would entirely support it if it consisted only of clause 1(1):

"The next general election shall take place on 7th May 2009."

We think that that day—if not sooner—would be an excellent date.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I suspected that that might be the case, and I also suspect that the Government might not like that provision at all. I accept that if I were to have the opportunity for the Bill to proceed I might have to give up that date to gain the Government's support. That provision makes the current Parliament a fixed-term Parliament, but I fully accept that to make further progress I might have to give it up and instead go for making the next Parliament a fixed-term Parliament—although I think we should start as soon as possible.

Another detail in the Bill is that the campaign should be a month long. The Bill controls when dissolutions will happen so we do not have the extraordinary variations in campaign length of the past 20 or 25 years; sometimes they have been two months long, and at other times barely a month.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

Surely if the date of the election is known, the campaign can start at any time? There have been different lengths of campaign because the date of an election has been called later, but under the Bill the start of the campaigning would be a simple matter.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I consider that to be an advantage of the Bill, although the form of politics that we have reached is arguably one in which there is campaigning all the time. That is true both in our system, where there is no fixed term, and in the US system, where there are fixed terms; a constant campaign seems to have been adopted there, too.

One of the objections raised when I first announced the Bill was that it would prevent the Government, or Parliament, from changing the day of the week on which the election was to be held. I have dealt with that in the Bill; the House of Commons would retain a power to change the day of the week, if it so desired.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Why is the hon. Gentleman keen to have the election in May? Having general elections in May on a fixed-term basis would surely always give the incumbent Government the opportunity for a giveaway Budget shortly before the election started?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is one point of view, but if the election were held at another time, I suspect that the budgetary cycle could be changed to make up for it.

I chose May, although I am not wedded to it as a principle of the Bill, simply because that was when the previous election took place, and making the present Parliament a fixed-term one required the election to be held in May. One of the things that we learned last year was that late autumn elections are not particularly convenient, especially given the way in which the electoral register is put together, and what happens when the clocks change and the rain starts. There might be an argument for May on general principle.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

One of the advantages for an incumbent Government of an autumn election might be that if Parliament did not sit during the summer they would not have had to be scrutinised and the Executive would not have had to sit and listen. There might be some advantage for an incumbent Government in having a September or October election.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is a very interesting point, which had not occurred to me. My view in favour of May is strengthening as time passes, although I am not tied to these particular details. Another such detail is whether the term should last four years or five. Some countries have five-year Parliaments; the European Parliament has such a term. The principle is for there to be a fixed term, not that it should particularly be for one period or another.

Finally, I wish to touch on the escape clause—the break clause. Avid readers of the Bill will have noticed that it contains no such clause, although there is an implied one. The implied escape clause is that if it was generally thought desirable for there to be an election, because it was the only way to break a political deadlock, it would of course be possible to pass an amending Act. Passing such an Act would simply say, "There shall be a general election, notwithstanding what the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill says." Such an approach is always possible under our system, which does not have a written constitution. The break clause means that there would have to be more general political consensus—not only here, but in the other place—that there should be an election than simply what the Government of the day believe.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

The hon. Gentleman just addressed this point; I was just wondering whether this Bill to change the date would be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, including an unelected House.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

It should be. That is in line with at least one part of our existing constitution, because there is an exception to the Parliament Act that if there is a Bill to extend the life of Parliament, the House of Lords retains its ancient veto. As a safeguard, it should retain that veto in the instance we are describing too, although I, of course, look forward to the time when the House of Lords is fully elected, and, thus, fulfils the promise made to the people of this country by the Liberal Government of 1911.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman said that Parliament could pass an Act to amend this Bill, should it become an Act. In effect, he is arguing that the Prime Minister of the day could throw out the provisions of this Bill and have a general election whenever he or she wanted within the four or five-year period.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

Fortunately, it takes a long time to get Bills through without the co-operation of the other parties. It is easier for a Government to get Bills through this House than the other place, but the combination of the two would mean that it would take so long to get the Bill through that the opportunity to hold an election that might have arisen because of some short-term shift in public opinion would probably have passed. It would also be risky for a Government to try to push through such a Bill to take advantage of a short-term opportunity that might have gone by the time the Bill had been passed. If there was a political crisis, and it was agreed by all parties that the only way out of the deadlock was to have an election, a Bill could pass through the Houses smoothly. Therefore, although the Bill does not apparently have an escape mechanism, it does have quite a good one, by implication.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

Am I right to think that the Government would have to move a Bill of the sort that the hon. Gentleman describes, so if the Government did not want to do so in a political emergency, the Opposition would not be able to do so—as is the case now, as we cannot choose when we want an election?

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

That is right, and that is in line with the practice in most other countries, although it could be changed by amending the House's Standing Orders. The Standing Orders in the other place are as great a mystery to me now as they have ever been.

It would also be possible to add another escape clause. I am happy to listen to arguments for such a mechanism in Committee. Although because we do not have a written constitution we can never escape from the possibility that Parliament might pass another Bill incompatible or inconsistent with this one, it might be possible to build into this Bill another way to do that, which might meet the hon. Gentleman's objection. One could build in, for example, something like the Scottish mechanism of a two-thirds majority in this House on a motion moved on an Opposition day. I would be happy to listen to such proposals in Committee.

The present system led to a farce last October that affected not only the Prime Minister's reputation but that of the entire political system. The present approach is both unfair and creates bad government. There is a better way. I am happy to argue about the details of how to achieve that in Committee, but I ask the House to endorse the principle that the term of Parliament should be fixed by law and the right to call general elections taken out of the hands of the Prime Minister.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 1:48 pm, 16th May 2008

I am grateful to David Howarth for introducing his Bill in such lucid terms. It is important for the House to consider such issues anew, and he has brought some fresh thinking to bear on the subject. The only merit in the Bill is that it would provide for a general election sooner than we would otherwise get one, and if it gets into Committee, I would be keen to move an amendment to provide for a general election even sooner than 7 May 2009.

The hon. Gentleman's motivation seems to be to cover up for the bottling out by the Prime Minister last October, but the electorate appear to be making their own judgment about that in fairly harsh terms. Indeed, that is not confined to the electorate, but includes many members of his own party, including those in Parliament. There was a similar situation in 1978, when the Prime Minister, Callaghan, could have gone to the country. He chose not to do so in October 1978, and was penalised by the electorate in 1979, when he did not win the general election. People still look back at that period and say that if he had had the election in 1978, he might have won.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman most about the current system giving the incumbent party an enormous unfair advantage. It does, but his system would give the incumbent party an even greater unfair advantage, because it would enable it, from the day that it got into government, to do everything to get the electorate on its side for that fixed date in four years' time. In the United States, the two years before a presidential election is geared to that election. The consequence of having such a system would be that the Government would ruthlessly use all the tools at their command to their advantage.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I follow the hon. Gentleman's point, which is important, but the difference is that, in a fixed-term system, both the Government and the Opposition know when the election date is, whereas in our current system, only the Government know.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

When I was a member of the Government, I did not know the date of the general election until after everyone else seemed to know. When the hon. Gentleman says that only the Government know, perhaps he means that only the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's closest advisers know. I am not sure that that addresses the issue.

Under such a system, everyone would know that there was to be an election on a fixed date in four years' time, but only the Government would have the resources to manipulate things to their advantage. I am thinking particularly of Government propaganda. The amount of money that the Government spend on advertising has been shooting up, and one can imagine them organising their advertising budget in the three or six months running up to the fixed election date. They would have an even greater advantage under such a system than they have under the present system. It is possible for the Prime Minister to take a raincheck after local elections, in May, and decide whether to have a general election in June. That happened twice in the 1980s, and reflected the opinion at that time. I am not sure that it would work to change the system in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests on the basis that it would make things fairer for everyone.

I also have a difficulty with the claim that the Bill would promote good governance by ending stop-start cycles and boom and bust. I wonder how consistent that is with the policy of the hon. Gentleman and his party of wanting proportional representation, which would make it much less likely that we would have a strong, single-party Government. The likelihood of having a strong, single-party Government—if that is what he is keen to have—would be more undermined by a PR system than it would be helped by the Bill.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

One could argue that fixed terms and PR go together, as often happens in other parts of Europe. If there were a fixed term that could be bypassed only with broad political consensus, parties would have to work together more. The hon. Gentleman talks about strong government, but I would talk about popular government. The Government would be more popular, more of the time, because they would be backed by more of the people.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Gentleman talks about a Government being popular, but what is important is having a good Government. A Government who are not popular in the short term might often prove popular in the longer term, when the benefits are seen.

I am simply putting down a few markers. I am sure that the Bill will go into Committee and that the Government will be enthusiastic about allowing it to do so, so that it can be amended along the lines I have been suggesting. I am also sure that other Members present would like to contribute to this timely debate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having chosen this subject, which is a refreshing change from a lot of the routine that we have on Fridays.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 1:55 pm, 16th May 2008

I congratulate David Howarth on introducing this important matter. I am not enormously enthusiastic about his Bill, but this issue ought to be discussed and I am very pleased that he has given us that opportunity today. It occurs to me that there is one Member of this House who might have wished that this Bill was already law by this time last year—the Prime Minister himself. Then, he would not have got into the dreadful mess that he got into in the autumn, and which has so fatally damaged his reputation as a politician. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman did not introduce this Bill in order to help the current Prime Minister, but he has raised many points today that the Minister is no doubt looking forward to addressing.

This is one of those issues that is very much a question of balance. On the one hand, there are the advantages of the present system's flexibility, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as did my hon. Friends. On the other, there is the enormous political power that the current system gives to an incumbent Prime Minister. As I said earlier, it might be that both the larger parties in this House, which have for the last century formed either the Government or the Opposition

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Indeed. It might be that both those parties can see the advantage of incumbency and would like to hold on to that advantage. It is Labour's now but it will be ours at some point, and so it goes. The Liberal Democrats, I am afraid, have no chance whatever of benefiting from that incumbency, so I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman wishes to introduce a Bill that reduces the advantage given to a current Prime Minister.

I see why the matter arises now—because of what happened, as I said, last autumn. I recall that in its 1992 manifesto, "It's time to get Britain working again"—it was not the most successful manifesto in history—the Labour party said:

"This general election was called only after months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy."

Of course, that was not the case. The then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, might have called a general election in 1991—I recall being ready for it myself, just in case—but he did not call it until the spring of 1992. In the intervening time, that did no harm to the economy or to the political process. Indeed, it did no harm to Sir John Major, either, or to the Conservative party, but it did do a lot of harm to the then leader of the Labour party and his campaign and campaigning style, and presumably affected the amount of campaigning that the then Opposition were doing. I do not know what sort of effect it had on Labour's party funds, but Labour felt strongly enough about the issue to have fixed Parliaments in its 1992 manifesto.

Strangely, fixed-term Parliaments—what a surprise!—were not in the successful Labour party manifesto of 1997, when Labour eventually did get into government. My point is that it would appear that every Opposition want to use all the tools available to them—not surprisingly—to get rid of the Government. However, as soon as they get into government they do not want to do that.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

Let me put everything in the picture about the 1992 manifesto. The subject of fixed-term Parliaments was dropped but, as the hon. Lady might remember, my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman described that manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. Perhaps that was not the only proposal to be dropped from that manifesto, as quite a lot of other things have changed since then.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Lady is right. I could have been much crueller about the 1992 manifesto—and indeed about the 1983 manifesto—but I thought that that would be unfair. The hon. Lady is right that there were many other reasons why the 1992 manifesto failed to bring about a Labour Government.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I apologise. The hon. Lady is quite right to mention 1983. That was my mistake, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton was describing the manifesto from 10 years earlier than 1992. Nevertheless, manifestos change from time to time.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I endorse that point. Indeed, Conservative manifestos are changing for the future, too.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I remember the 1992 manifesto with some clarity, and I was about to point out that the quotation cited by my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the 1983 manifesto. I was grateful for the dithering of the then Government in 1991, because I was pregnant, and at one point I anticipated that I would have my baby in the middle of that autumn election campaign.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

The hon. Lady strikes a potent chord with me, and I have every sympathy with her. As the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned earlier, the date of the 2001 election was changed because of the foot and mouth crisis. I was expecting a baby at that point, and had thought quite happily that we would have an election in April or May, at which point I could manage one just fine. The election was quite rightly postponed for a month, and so I fought a general election on 7 June and gave birth to my son on 14 June. I sympathise completely with the hon. Lady.

I do not know whether fixed-term Parliaments—I am not suggesting that we get into this argument—will help future generations of female Members of Parliament and potential Members of Parliament to plan the birth of their children. I know that I got it pretty wrong—well, not entirely, because my son is of course the most wonderful person in the world. I appreciate that that point is out of order and nothing to do with the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Conservative, Uxbridge

David Howarth said that Governments are given a great deal of incumbency power, but what happened last autumn showed the Prime Minister to the populace in a bad light. His power was turned against him and he is now the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I hope we can emphasise during the rest of the debate.

I quoted the Labour party manifesto from 1992, which said that the question of whether the election would take place in late 1991 or 1992 had

"damaged our economy and weakened our democracy."

The hon. Member for Cambridge argued that what happened in the political world last autumn likewise damaged our democracy and our economy. However, I argue that it did not damage the working of our democracy and it did not damage our economy. The only damage was to the Prime Minister and to the reputation of those around him for good political management. That is part of the world of politics—it is what happens in a democracy. Legislation such as the Bill would not prevent such things from happening again.

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Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge was making the point that because of the speculation many actions that were important for the country were put on hold: for example, brand new Secretaries of State were put in charge of a possible election campaign. That false start, which none the less involved much planning, led to delay in many areas—not least the Climate Change Bill.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I understand what the hon. Lady says, but the same thing would happen in a fixed-term Parliament, as we can see in the USA at present. The Americans have been campaigning for a long time—it seems like centuries. They refer to President Bush as a lame duck president because his term of office will soon be finished, but he is still in office. The circumstances she describes arise just as much in fixed-term systems as in flexible systems. It is all part of the democratic process.

A cross-party organisation called Fixed Term was set up in October 2007—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Cambridge was a mover. The organisation campaigns for fixed-term Parliaments and has published the results of a poll conducted in October 2007. It found that 25 per cent. of Conservative MPs, 41 per cent. of Labour MPs and 88 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs support fixed-term Parliaments. If anything was to convince me to be against any Bill it would be the fact that 88 per cent. of Liberal Democrats but only 25 per cent. of Conservatives are in favour of it.

I did not quite understand the relevance of the other statistics published by Fixed Term, which tell us that 43 per cent. of male MPs, but 49 per cent. of female MPs, support fixed-term Parliaments. I could not understand why the organisation had bothered to research such information until Ms Abbott made a point with which I entirely agree. I can now understand why female Members of Parliament are more in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, and I might even be persuaded on that point myself, but not this afternoon.

The strongest argument for change is that the incumbent Prime Minister has an unfair advantage. As I said earlier, it is ironic that the one person who would prefer a fixed-term Parliament system right now is the incumbent Prime Minister.

The debate has been valuable, and I am sure it will become even more valuable as we hear what the Minister has to say. I want to ensure that she has plenty of time to address the issues, and I am certain this will not be the last time that we debate the matter over the coming months.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 2:08 pm, 16th May 2008

I congratulate David Howarth on his success in the private Members' ballot. It is always a great achievement and Back Benchers value it greatly. I am grateful to him for initiating this debate on fixed-term Parliaments. Parliamentarians love to discuss the topic; we always feel more expert than anyone else on anything to do with Parliament and the way it works—we always think we know better than most about that.

May I apologise again to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my absolute lapse of memory on suicide notes and Labour party manifestos, especially, after all, as I was elected on the 1992 manifesto? I should hardly want to admit that I was elected on a manifesto with which I did not have some association. Nevertheless, manifestos evolve and change, as does the parliamentary system.

The hon. Member for Cambridge has put his argument with great cogency. Indeed, in some ways, it would appear a neat and persuasive one. In fact, the issues that relate to the dissolution of Parliament and the timing of elections strike at the very heart of our democracy and constitution. We need to treat them seriously, so we very much welcome openly discussing possible changes to enhance the democratic process. That has been reflected in today's debate and in some of the other things that we consider, not just the timing of general elections but the other aspects of our constitution, the way that campaigns develop and so on.

I was concerned that the hon. Gentleman said that his Bill made provision, albeit implicitly, for situations where the fixed term should not apply. It is a short, neat and very clear Bill, and I can see nothing in it that would allow Parliament, the Government or any other part of the Executive or the legislature to call an election outwith the fixed term.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

The simple answer to the Minister's question is that the principle of parliamentary supremacy allows us to pass any Bill that we like, and it would take precedence over anything that we had passed previously.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

The hon. Gentleman referred to that in his opening remarks. Yes, Parliament can pass any Bill that it likes. Some Bills take longer than others to pass, and others can be passed in a day. If a Government had a reasonable majority they could present a very short Bill—it would be at least as short as this Bill, if not shorter—to say, "We're going to change the Fixed Term Parliament Act" and railroad it through very quickly in a day. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would consider that not very democratic and certainly not within the spirit of what he is trying to achieve with the Bill.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

I thank the Minister for giving way again, but trying to force a Bill through the House in a day is very difficult without the co-operation of the other parties. Resources and procedural devices could be used that are not used when the other parties are co-operating. Furthermore, without the co-operation of the other parties, getting a Bill through the House of Lords, where the Government have no majority, is impossible in a day.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I would not say that that is necessarily impossible in the House of Lords; otherwise a Government might find themselves never reaching the end of their legislative programme. However, it is true that Labour Governments certainly have far more difficulties in the House of Lords than do Conservatives ones. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental flaw in the Bill, but I will come back to that later.

Clause 2, which deals with the dissolution of Parliament and states that the present Parliament should be dissolved on 7 April 2009 and that it therefore cannot be dissolved at any other time, goes on to state that every subsequent Parliament should be dissolved 30 days before a general election. However, again, that does not seem to offer the flexibility required if other perhaps non-parliamentary events took place that might make a Government consider it appropriate to dissolve Parliament. Indeed, if a Parliament were to complete its fixed term, and something happened within, or close to, that 30-day period, there would be no flexibility in such circumstances, either.

The Bill primarily seeks to fix the date of the next general election, and I understand why the Opposition see merit in that proposal. However, they will not be surprised to know that the Government do not quite take that view. The Bill is prescriptive in its provision that elections should take place on the first Thursday in May, although I accept that the hon. Member for Cambridge said that that date could be changed on Parliament's say-so. The worrying thing about the Bill's wording is that it categorically forbids the dissolution of Parliament other than in accordance with its provisions.

From my perspective, there are two reasons why the hon. Gentleman has introduced the Bill, both of which are based on a genuine wish to improve the democratic process. First, the measure would repeal the serving Prime Minister's sole ability to decide the timing of general elections, presumably to ensure that there is a fairer, broader and more democratic system; and, secondly, it would curtail the duration of Parliament generally by regulating the timing of general elections. The Government believe strongly in representative democracy with Parliament at its heart, and we have a long history of constitutional reform. Indeed, we have championed change in response to demands to modernise the institutions of government. As a Government, we are not afraid to consider and to implement constitutional and parliamentary reform if it better reflects the changing face of our modern democracy.

In honour of that philosophy, in July last year, the Government launched a Green Paper entitled, "The Governance of Britain", which set out our vision and proposals for constitutional renewal. One of the main objectives was the rebalancing of power between the Executive and Parliament, and that agenda included a number of proposals to limit the Executive's power, to transfer power to Parliament, and to expand Parliament's role in certain areas. Some of those proposals were reflected in the Prime Minister's statement about the forward legislative programme. We have undertaken an extensive consultation on policies with members of the public, private bodies, firms, academics and, indeed, other Government Departments. We always welcome contributions from Opposition parties.

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Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I do not know whether the Minister has had the benefit of reading the proceedings of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, but if she has, she will know that almost all the evidence that we have received complains of a big gap between the Government's rhetoric and the reality, particularly in relation to the draft Bill.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I have not read the details of those proceedings, but we are in the process of having that debate—the Joint Committee has been set up, and we are discussing the measure with people. The rhetoric begins the process, and the reality is what will come out of the findings of the Joint Committee and others about constitutional renewal. The package of reforms that we have put forward represents the recalibration of a number of significant parts of our constitution. It is another step in the long and detailed programme of constitutional change that the Government have undertaken since 1997.

There have been some fundamental reforms, including devolution in Scotland, Wales and, more recently, Northern Ireland, and the transformation of the role of Lord Chancellor. A supreme court is about to be established. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998 were introduced, although I know that members of the Conservative party are not necessarily persuaded that we need a Human Rights Act. A lot of work has gone towards ensuring a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. The Government have been at the forefront of constitutional renewal for the past 10 or 11 years.

The reforms in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill will have real consequences for the governance of the country. For example, they will ensure that a future Government cannot make changes to the core values of the civil service without proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny. They will give Parliament a vote on the ratification of treaties. They will stop the involvement of the Lord Chancellor and Prime Minister in certain judicial appointments. Those are tangible reforms that will absolutely change the way in which our constitution and our Parliament work. I want to consider some of those reforms in detail in this debate.

The process of constitutional renewal continues with the publication of the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It is in draft so that we can respond to the debate so far, and then move on to the next phase. We invite Parliament and others to consider and comment on it and on the White Paper; that will enhance the quality of our legislation and contribute to the next step in the improved constitutional settlement. Of course, the Bill and the White Paper do not set out the final blueprint of our constitutional settlement; they are the next step in the governance of Britain programme. We hope that people across the country, in every walk of life, will continue to participate in the debate. That is a vital step in strengthening our democracy.

The governance programme is of particular relevance to today's debate. It sets out to remove the power of the Prime Minister of the day to call a general election at will—that is the essence of the Bill before us. One of the main areas of the governance of Britain work is our commitment to consult on whether to change the system for dissolving Parliament. There is a very useful House of Commons standard note on fixed-term Parliaments. Currently, the Prime Minister requests that the monarch exercise her prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. The note says:

"it is the Queen who formally calls a general election since it is she...who is vested with the legal power to dissolve and summon Parliaments. The power dates back to at least the thirteenth century."

Of course hon. Members will today have heard my right hon. Friend Mr. McAvoy say that the Queen has given her consent to our debating the Bill in Parliament.

Constitutional monarchs may continue to play a role in the formation of Governments, even in European countries where proportional representation, written constitutions and fixed-term Parliaments are in place. In Denmark, for example, the Government are in existence in law by virtue of the Prime Minister being nominated by the sovereign. In some countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the monarch traditionally plays an active personal role in forming a coalition.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice

First, that is not the position in Sweden. Secondly, does the Minister not think that it is a good idea to remove our monarch from any possibility of involvement in politics?

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

Our current system is better than those available elsewhere, which is why we should continue with it. The monarch decides on the appointment of the Government through constitutional convention, so it is important to note that the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments in the United Kingdom would not necessarily eliminate the use of the royal prerogative in dissolution. We do not intend to take away the important and historical tradition of referring to the monarch, but the system requires updating to reflect the more democratic time in which we live.

We intend to change the convention so that the Prime Minister is required to seek the approval of the House of Commons before asking the monarch for a dissolution. In effect, that would empower Parliament to influence the general election process, a role that it does not currently have. Evidently, any new arrangements will have to provide for a situation in which it proves impossible to form a Government who command the support of the House of Commons and Parliament refuses to dissolve itself. In short, the Government are already implementing a process of review for the dissolution of Parliament and considering an alternative mechanism, by which Parliament, rather than just the Prime Minister, will be more responsible, and therefore more accountable, in that process.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Does that mean that the Government would still keep the rule whereby a vote of no confidence in a Prime Minister leads to a general election, which could be important in the next few months?

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

While I disagree with the hon. Lady about whether that is likely to become important in the next few months, the Bill does not take account of what Parliament can do if there were a vote of no confidence in a Government, which is a big weakness. The Bill is too inflexible for Parliament to respond in such a situation.

Restructuring the recall of the House of Commons is another case in point. Currently, the House may be recalled by the Speaker during any period of Adjournment under Standing Order No. 13 at the request of the Government. There is no power for MPs, or even a majority of MPs, to force a recall. In the past, hon. Members have argued through early-day motions that there should be the opportunity for Members to ask the Speaker to recall Parliament. The current arrangement allows Parliament to be recalled. Indeed, in the past few years—

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The Minister is straying rather beyond the bounds of the Bill before the House.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice

I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Because of the wording of the provision and the fact that Parliament can be dissolved only at certain times, the Bill would not allow the current flexibility whereby Parliament can be recalled at the Speaker's behest, where an outside event might make it appropriate for hon. Members to gather together to discuss the matter, as we did, for example, in the cases of the Omagh bombing and Iraq.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to introduce fixed-term Parliaments in order to redress the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive, he should welcome the fact that we hope to introduce a system that will allow the House to be recalled at the initiative of the House rather than of the Government. That would allow a majority among Members of Parliament to request a recall, which the Speaker would then consider.

I shall go on to discuss other areas of reform that the Bill would curtail, but I want to point out that many Parliaments do not last for the full five years. Between February 1919 and the present day, very few Parliaments have gone the full term. The flexibility inherent in the current system allows for what I believe to be the principle behind the hon. Gentleman's Bill, which—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on 6 June.

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