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I beg to move amendment 11, page 1, line 5, leave out '
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 7, page 1, line 5, leave out '2015' and insert '2013'.
Amendment 8, page 1, line 7, leave out 'fifth' and insert 'third'.
Amendment 12, page 1, line 7, leave out 'fifth' and insert 'fourth'.
Amendment 32, page 1, line 9, leave out subsection (4) and insert-
'(4) In determining the polling day for a parliamentary general election under subsection (3) above, no account shall be taken of any early parliamentary general election the polling day for which was appointed under section 2.'.
Amendment 13, page 1, line 13, leave out '"fifth" there were substituted "fourth"' and insert '"fourth" there were substituted "third"'.
Amendment 9, page 1, line 13, leave out 'fifth' and insert 'third'.
Amendment 10, page 1, line 13, leave out '"fourth"' and insert '"second"'.
New clause 4- Devolved legislature elections-
'(1) A devolved legislature election may not take place on the same day as a United Kingdom parliamentary general election.
(2) If a devolved legislature election is scheduled to take place on the same day as a United Kingdom parliamentary general election, then the date of the poll for the devolved legislature general election must vary by-
(a) not less than two months, and
(b) not more than twelve months and one week before or after the United Kingdom parliamentary general election date.
(3) The appropriate authority shall make provision by order to vary the date of the devolved legislature general election, subject to agreement by the relevant devolved legislature.
(4) The following election to that devolved legislature will take place on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following the polling day for the previous election.
New clause 5- Varying of elections by the National Assembly for Wales-
(2) In subsection (1) after "May", insert ", subject to subsections (1A) and (1B)".
(4) After subsection (1) insert-
"(1A) If the scheduled date for a National Assembly for Wales ordinary general election is the same date as for a United Kingdom parliamentary general election, the National Assembly of Wales general election must be held-
(a) not less than two months, and
(b) not more than twelve months and one week before or after the United Kingdom parliamentary general election.
(1B) The Secretary of State for Wales shall by order provide for the date of the poll of the National Assembly for Wales ordinary general election, with the agreement of the National Assembly for Wales, subject to subsection (1A).".'.
Clause stand part.
I wish to speak also to amendments 12 and 13 in my name and those of my hon. Friend Mr MacNeil, the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. Friends, as well as new clauses 4 and 5. The amendments go to the crux of the Bill-the establishment of a specific period between elections and the date on which we hold the next UK parliamentary elections.
My party is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, for many of the reasons outlined on Second Reading. A fixed-term Parliament removes a Prime Minister's ability to seek the dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain, taking away that significant incumbency advantage-more of which later in my speech. It would end speculation about the timing of the next election and a near-obsession with opinion polls and psephologists about when an election might be called. It provides stability for the political programme, as we have found with the One Wales agreement in Wales, a four-year term, where parties understand what can and cannot be achieved within the required legislative time frame-even in our case where the byzantine workings of legislative competence orders have held up the progress of our law-making, denying us prompt action to solve our problems. By providing a settled timetable, fixed-term Parliaments provide a firm basis for electoral administration, taking away the shock of a snap election and giving a more generous timetable to ensure participation in the voting process.
However, I cannot understand the Government's reasoning behind the insistence on a five-year legislative term, either in this parliamentary term or in the future. To be perfectly honest, there does not seem to be any reason. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government have consistently failed to provide a good reason why the next election should be held in May 2015, not in May 2014. On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister, with bizarre Liberal Democrat logic, presumably taken from a "Focus" leaflet bar graph, claimed that a five-year Parliament would probably amount in practice to a legislative working term of four years. As many hon. Members will already know, the five-year maximum term was implemented in 1911, but even that was introduced with the expectation that the working parliamentary period would probably be four years-a period in which, as Lord Asquith said at the time, a Government had either the political mandate from the previous election or the unwillingness to commit to unpopular decisions ahead of the next election.
Four years-the length of time between elections for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the London Assembly, the London mayoral elections and local authority, community and even parish council elections in all four parts of the UK-is quite clearly and obviously the norm for the electoral cycle in the nation states.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, internationally, the four-year term is pretty much the norm, particularly in Westminster Parliaments? Is he further aware of the academic opinion from Robert Hazell at University College London's constitution unit to Professor Blackburn, who consistently say that five years is too long and smells like a political fix?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. For every legislature where the Executive is decided from the legislature, the average is four years rather than five.
The only elections that break that cycle in the UK are the European elections. The elections held and the terms that we expect are the same for elections at all levels, so why are the UK Government seeking to introduce a term that is different from all meaningful precedents?
I shall try to address those points later in my speech. I think that I addressed some of them in my answer to an earlier intervention.
If four years is good enough for a local councillor, why should an MP be given any longer without once again putting themselves up for election to secure a democratic mandate? The argument has been made that, because the current system allows for up to five years between elections, that should be set in stone as the new norm, but that hardly seems proportionate or common sense. When there is a range of options, it is not normal to go for the most extreme, because more moderate measures make greater common sense and attract greater consensus, especially in this Chamber. Let us be honest: amid the rushed and hasty constitutional changes that the Con-Dem Government have been steamrollering through, consensus, consultation and a genuine attempt to reach cross-party agreement have, unfortunately, been greatly lacking.
A fairer litmus test of how long a fixed-term Parliament might be is the average length of time between elections. As Chris Bryant, who I am glad to say will break with tradition tonight and, I hope, vote for an amendment in the name of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, noted on Second Reading,
That is a very important point.
Similarly, as Robert Hazell of University college London's constitution unit noted in his written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, although the balance of Parliaments has been between four and five years, those that went the whole term were those governed by Prime Ministers who did not believe that they would win an election after four years. A five-year parliamentary term, as we saw between 1992 and 1997 and 2005 and 2010 in particular, is often therefore a result of the unpopularity of the governing party. It seems ironic that this Con-Dem Government, one of whose parties is already highly unpopular in Wales-with just 5% support, according to the most recent poll, in north Wales-should opt for the length of time that is associated with the failure to govern successfully and to govern with public support. Perhaps that is just an expectation of things to come.
Why should this Parliament be for five years and not four? Why should we hold the election on
When questioned on Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared loth to give a fuller explanation. I hope that we hear a better account this evening, because neither was an explanation more forthcoming from other Government Members. Mr Williams reminded us that his party's election manifesto was for a four-year fixed-term Parliament, the proposal that my party supports. He said that he did not know when the policy was changed by the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
I have heard much from the Liberal Democrats in recent months about the need for agreement and compromise in coalition, but I am not entirely sure at whom the message was aimed, because my party has been part of a successful coalition in Wales since we signed the One Wales agreement in 2007. The key to success, I can tell the Liberal Democrats, was agreeing the policy programme before signing the deal, not making it up as we went along, which seems to have been the case with the UK Government. Being part of a coalition does not mean that we have to sell our souls; it means that we reach a practical agreement on policies.
My hon. Friend talks about the merits of coalition Government, but in these islands there is a Government who have only 46 Members but manage to pass their budgets with majorities in the 70s and 80s. Coalition government is not always the way; there is also the minority government model, which is working very successfully in Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I was remiss not to mention it.
We will have that debate later.
A five-year Parliament was not in either governing parties' manifestos, and it was not put to a public vote. I often wonder, as I watch the coalition Government's policies morph before me and see stories about the coalition discussions leak out in books and in the Sunday press, just how much influence Back-Bench Lib Dems had over the policy negotiations. I wonder whether they, like me, wake up and wonder which policy of theirs will be changed today. As we are getting used to saying in Wales, "Another day, another Lib-Dem U-turn."
So, we are still no closer to understanding why five and not four years is the chosen length for a fixed term of the UK Parliament. Perhaps a wag on the Government Benches-by that I mean a wit, not the more common tabloid usage of the word-was correct when she referred to the next election date as being " the date of the next election, cementing the coalition". Others think that this is a response to the economic cycle, and the hope is that by 2015 the worm will have turned and the tremendous gamble with our economy, our livelihoods and our communities that we witnessed in the comprehensive spending review will have paid off, and we will be enjoying the fruits of a hard-won recovery. Either way, it appears to be a decision made from political expediency, and that is not in the best interests of the electorate or democracy.
I think that the debate is about whether there is to be five years or four years between elections. I will try to address the hon. Lady's point as the debate progresses.
Many would say that the decision to run five-year electoral terms is a result of political expediency. I have a fair bit of experience of coalitions, and their policies should not have to be welded together in a back room in the way that those of the Con-Dem coalition have been. There is a huge irony in the Deputy Prime Minister's coming to this House to say that the coalition is taking away the Prime Minister's right to call an election at the time of his choosing, because it is not. This addresses the point made by Ms Bagshawe. The one who is currently in charge can choose the longest possible time to be in charge providing that he can keep his own party happy.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee notes that much of the evidence it received was against the idea of a five-year fixed parliamentary term. Neither constitutional experts nor the public are in favour of the new electoral system being set at this length of time. Indeed, some experts saw a note of irony in that by spacing out the time between elections at this maximum length, the active participation of many voters in the electoral system will be reduced rather than increased or improved, as many people, sadly, choose to mark their ballot paper only in a UK general election and do not participate at other levels of democracy. That is another issue that has not been considered properly in the discussions so far.
On Second Reading, many Members, not least my hon. Friend Pete Wishart, drew attention to the most salient concern-that of having the elections on the same day as other elections, specifically those of the devolved Administrations. There is nothing of what Aretha Franklin, or even George Galloway, might describe as "Respect" in the UK Government's treatment of the devolved Administrations in this affair, which has been notably lacking in meaningful consultation.
Is not that point all the more serious with a UK general election, a Scottish election and a Welsh election possibly happening at the same time, lined up with the referendum? We want to avoid that because we know the media cannot handle it. That disservice will be done to Scotland not only this time but yet again in four to five years' time.
My hon. Friend is correct-it is a double insult. If these plans go through unamended, the next devolved elections in Scotland and Wales will be terribly skewed.
During the debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, we discussed at length the principle of holding a National Assembly for Wales election on the same day as a referendum on the electoral system for the UK Parliament. Despite the objections of Opposition parties and, perhaps more importantly, those who make up the Welsh and Scottish Governments, that Bill was passed, once again showing up the Con-Dem Government's disrespect agenda for Wales and the other devolved nations. Ironically, even their best argument-the idea that savings would be made through combining the polls and electors would not have to traipse to the polling station more once-means little in the Welsh context, as we will already go to the ballot box in March for a referendum on the transfer of powers to the Welsh Government under part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, and then again in the following May. Of course, the referendum on further powers is far more relevant to the National Assembly elections than the referendum on AV.
I am not here to repeat the arguments we have already had, although they remain equally relevant and valid to the amendment as they did to debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. That clash of elections will occur once every five terms for the devolved Administrations and once every four terms for Westminster elections. As yet, we have no idea when a reformed House of Lords will be elected. I am a great believer in not underestimating the public, and in publishing the Bill the UK coalition Government are failing to learn from previous practices and errors. Many will remember that the 2007 Scottish Parliament and local elections were held on the same day, with the result that there were an astonishing 147,000 spoilt ballot papers.
The hon. Gentleman cannot be allowed to get away with saying that all the spoilt ballot papers were because two elections were held on the same day. The reason was the poor design of the Scottish Parliament election ballot paper. There were two columns, and people had to put a cross in each, but the instructions were not clear. That was the reason for the spoilt ballot papers, not the fact that there were two elections on one day.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point, but I was about to explain some of the complexities involved.
That was, of course, the first election after a new system was introduced, with the single transferrable vote being used in local elections in Scotland. Fortunately, we in Wales had already learned lessons and decoupled our local authority and Assembly elections by a year.
Although it is true that the main problem at the last Scottish election was the design of the ballot paper, covering both the constituency and list votes, the man who looked into the matter, Mr Gould, nevertheless suggested that different elections should not happen on the same day. There was a feeling that that had contributed to the difficulties, even though the main difficulty was the design of the ballot paper.
My hon. Friend makes a more informed contribution than I do, but I was just getting to the Gould report. It was an independent review by the Electoral Commission, and its conclusions and recommendations stated:
"One of the more controversial issues in the
If local issues and the visibility of local government candidates are viewed as a primary objective, then separating the...parliamentary from the local government elections is necessary in order to avoid the dominance of campaigns conducted for...parliamentary contests. In addition, separating the two elections would result in minimising the potential for voter confusion."
The hon. Gentleman is making some incredibly powerful arguments. Would he like to comment on the fact that not only would Westminster and Scottish parliamentary elections clash every five years, but the exact situation referred to in the Gould report-a clash with Scottish local government elections-would happen every four years? We could have the alternative vote system for Westminster while running the single transferrable vote system for the Scottish local government elections, which, as the Gould report highlighted, would be a disaster.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and that seems to me a recipe for disaster.
The words in the Gould report that I quoted make it clear to me, first, that elections should not take place at the same time when there is a trade-off between different objectives, as there clearly would be between a UK Westminster election and an election to the National Assembly for Wales or the other devolved Assemblies. Secondly, they show the problem of the dominance of one election over another. National Assembly for Wales elections are in no way inferior to UK general elections. To many people they mean much more, as they are a way of directly influencing the health and education policies that have an impact on everybody in one form or another.
We must consider the impact of our media, and even the failure of our politicians to understand what is at stake at different levels. Who can forget, for example, the Conservatives using in a UK general election campaign the words of a woman in Wales, Julie from Llandudno, about her concern for education, even though the matter was not even being voted upon in Wales, where education is devolved? Such things have an impact on the perceptions of the electorate.
In the spring, we faced a bizarre, presidential-style contest that was alien to our democracy, in which we elect candidates to Parliament and then usually select the leader of the largest party in the legislature to head up the Executive. There is no doubt that giving three party leaders additional prominence had an impact on an election in which minority party candidates were forced to buck the trend to be elected. Were that to happen at the same time as a Welsh election to the National Assembly, it would cause untold damage to our democracy as Welsh issues, concerns and policies would be steamrollered by the UK media. In Wales, and to a lesser extent in Scotland, we face media that are largely published in England and understandably promote English issues and concerns. When the King report was published two years ago, it was noted that in a month of prime-time reports on health and education, both of which are devolved issues, not once in 134 stories was there any mention of the fact that those policies did not affect Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. That was a criticism of the BBC-a public service broadcaster.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was as appalled as I was by a "Question Time" programme about two weeks ago. The issue of fiscal autonomy or independence, which is of crucial relevance to Scotland and, in a way, the UK, too, was raised by Nicola Sturgeon, but David Dimbleby just did not want to hear about it. Does my hon. Friend not think that that typifies the attitude of the BBC? Although the attitude was writ small in that case, in the event of an election it shows that there would be no interest at all from a London-centric point of view to air and properly discuss issues that affect the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Once again, my hon. Friend makes my point for me. What is important in this context is that the BBC is a public service broadcaster. I hesitate to say that the private sector is worse because it could hardly do much worse than nought out of 134. If this issue affects the BBC it will certainly affect the private press as well.
The English or the UK-based media, which are, by and large, one and the same thing, have difficulties handling devolution issues. Given its high penetration into Wales, it would undoubtedly skew the National Assembly elections. That is a salient concern and one that the UK Government would be wise to heed before continuing down this route.
The Gould report of 2007 says that although turnout is important, it is not the only or the most important consideration. Its conclusions and recommendations state:
"More important is that they engage with the campaign in a meaningful manner and make a knowledgeable decision on their ballot paper."
It recommends separating parliamentary and local government elections.
It is quite clear that the recommendations of the Gould report could equally apply to a separation of UK and devolved elections, which involve very different objectives and issues-not least in devolved issues such as health or education where some parties will be giving voters mixed messages due to the different policies that operate in different parts of the UK.
This clash will be further complicated by the changes to the UK-wide parliamentary constituencies, especially in Wales. In Scotland, however, the changes are already in place to some extent. Under the terms of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-it remains as opaque as ever as to why we debated the alternative vote referendum and the cut in the number of MPs in the same Bill while debating a fixed-term Parliament separately-Wales will lose probably 10 Members of Parliament.
That Bill also separated, or decoupled, the boundaries of Westminster constituency seats, which, under the new rules, will be set by the Boundary Commission for Wales. The rules make numbers on the electoral roll a more significant criterion than geography, history and other factors, and the National Assembly constituency boundaries will remain the same until the next Boundary Commission for Wales and will be set under the traditional rules.
Although I agree in principle with those changes, it would have been ridiculous to have lost 10 Assembly Members from the National Assembly because of a change in the rules at Westminster. That was an obvious weakness in the Government of Wales Act 2006. Although the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill contained only one Welsh clause, no time was given in this place for proper discussions.
The right hon. Lady knows that I am in full agreement with her. It was very important that those issues were discussed. It was a disgrace that the Secretary of State refused that request.
These changes will have a clear impact as electors find themselves not merely with the added burden of an extra piece of paper to complete, as they will in the clashing elections next May and the alternative vote referendum, but voting for different constituency locations. I am proud to serve on the Welsh Affairs Committee in my first term in Parliament. The Committee received evidence from a number of organisations on these potential problems, and reported on them in our first publication of this Session, entitled "'The implications for Wales of the Government's proposals on constitutional reform". We heard, for example, testimony from Lewis Baston, senior research fellow with Democratic Audit. He said that
"the elections for Westminster and the Assembly would be taking place on different systems on the same day, and more complicatedly on two sets of boundaries which will hardly ever correlate with each other."
Philip Johnson told our Committee that the coincidence of elections could have "horrendous" consequences in 2015.
I respect Lewis Baston enormously, but he is slightly wrong: there would be three different sets of boundaries in Wales and Scotland, because there are majority elected seats as well as regional seats. There is no guarantee in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that UK parliamentary boundaries will respect the boundaries of the regions used for Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections, so there will be three different boundaries.
I was coming to exactly that point. Electors will have three ballot papers: one for the Westminster constituency, which will be a separate location from the Assembly constituency, and a third paper for Assembly regional candidates. Scotland already has distinct UK and Scottish Parliament boundaries, but they remain fixed in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way to me again. If the Scottish parliamentary and UK elections were held on the same day, is it outwith the realms of possibility that my constituents would have to go to two separate polling stations?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the potential for organisational chaos in the 2015 elections. I am concerned about those elections from an organisational viewpoint.
That decoupling might lead to Westminster and the National Assembly for Wales having very different constituencies, and surely to confusion between different candidates, different policy areas and different locations. Just as importantly, there will be confusion because different electoral systems are used and different local authority electoral services will take responsibility for different counts.
Further to the point made by Ian Murray, surely the answer to avoiding the clash of dates is to give the devolved legislature or Government the power to change the date of elections, whether in respect of Cardiff, Holyrood or Belfast. If people foresee a clash with the US presidential election, for example, a Westminster election or-who knows?-the cup final, they could change dates.
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. That is the intention of some of our proposals and I am grateful to him for that important contribution.
The hon. Gentleman makes the reasonable point that there is a risk of confusion, but will he cast his mind back to the situation that pertained in London in 2004? We had a mayoral election, a Greater London assembly election, which featured a top-up list, and a full European election on the same day. The reality was that there was no sense of any great confusion among Londoners. I am sure that the Welsh electorate is no more stupid than the London electorate, and therefore that it would find a way to make the proposals work.
Obviously, my fears might come to nothing, but I see no reason why democracy should be held hostage to fortune in that way. The complication, of course, is how the media report different elections. That is the big difference between London elections and those for the devolved Administrations.
We are aware of the potential pitfalls, and I see no suitable way of dealing with them except by holding the different elections apart from each other. Of course, those are the known unknowns. As yet, we have no way of knowing the unknown unknowns between now and the next set of elections.
The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned one problem with holding different elections on the same day. Many who apply for a postal vote for the Westminster election will assume that they will automatically receive a postal vote for every election, but in fact, they will not, because they need to apply separately for a postal vote for the other elections.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the potential for organisational chaos in 2015 and about participation in those elections.
From the perspective of candidates, another argument against the five-year fixed-term UK Parliament and the clash with devolved Administration elections is that political parties in those countries will need to find suitably more candidates to contest those elections-probably about 90 in Wales, if the Con-Dem Government have their way with the boundary changes enacted in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and about 180 in Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of pertinent points about the difficulties in Wales in particular. Can he enlighten us on what consultation has taken place with the devolved Assemblies on these proposals?
I can answer the hon. Gentleman's point simply: hardly any.
Returning to the point about candidates, I am confident that my party will have no difficulty in finding quality candidates the length and breadth of Wales, although it might be a different matter, of course, for smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats. However, ensuring quality coverage, so that the electorate can become familiar with the people, and not only the party, for whom they are voting, will be doubly difficult if they are all fighting for air time.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is looking forward, like I am, with great anticipation to finding out how the Minister will reply to this debate. On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was minded to move the date of the election. Is my hon. Friend aware of any Government amendments dealing with this matter, or is this yet another Liberal broken promise?
My hon. Friend makes an important contribution. Obviously, if there had been changes since Second Reading, I would not have had to make this speech or table these amendments.
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be arguing that the right length of time for this Parliament is four years. His whole case seems to be that there will be a clash of elections every 20 years. I agree that it would be a bad idea for both elections to be on the same day, so were the Government to give the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly the power to alter the date of their elections, would he withdraw his new clause?
I made it clear earlier that my preference is for four years and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has said, the norm has been three years and eight months. Why go to five years, therefore, if the norm over the past 200 years has been three years and eight months? That seems tried and tested.
Why on earth should it not be this House that moves its dates? When this Bill was introduced, the Government knew there was to be a Scottish parliamentary election in 2015? Is it not the ultimate disrespect that this place expects the Scottish Parliament to move on its behalf?
Once again, my hon. Friend makes an important point.
Pete Wishart is being a little unfair to the Liberal Democrats. So far it is not a broken promise, but just a promise. It might become a broken promise, but at the moment it is just a promise.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that correction.
On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared somewhat surprised that having elections on the same day might cause problems. In fact, he seemed slightly perplexed, as if he had not previously considered the possibility. In response to my hon. Friend Mr Llwyd, who noted that there was provision in the various devolution Acts for those legislatures to vary elections by up to four weeks only, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
"That is exactly...why we need to consider whether the existing provisions are sufficient."-[ Hansard, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 627.]
That was commented on shortly after by Maria Eagle, who, quite understandably, wondered why, if the Deputy Prime Minister was already aware of the potential for problems, no provision had been made in the Bill to counter them. Admissions of that sort show up this Bill as having been flung together, rather than considered and properly scrutinised.
Would it not be a great sign of maturity from the Government if they could accept new clause 4 and accept that various legislatures-be they in Westminster, Holyrood or wherever-have the right to pick their own window for an election in order to avoid clashes with another legislature and to allow the media the time to communicate properly with the populations? The latter will be difficult, as BBC "Question Time" the other week proved.
That would certainly further the respect agenda that we have heard so much about from the UK Government since their inception.
I am afraid that admissions of the sort that we heard from the Deputy Prime Minister show this legislation up as having been flung together rather than considered properly. The UK Government told us on Second Reading:
"We take these issues seriously and are not just paying lip service to them."-[ Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 702.]
However, we have no new amendments on the issue to discuss in Committee, and no answers have been given to the questions posed about how the Government plan to deal with those concerns. I hope that we will hear more from the UK Government on the issue today, as requested by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in our first report. Nobody in Wales has any confidence that their voice is being heard for as long as the UK Government continue to steamroller their policies through without time for due consideration and scrutiny.
What type of separation is acceptable? At present, the only available option is for elections to be varied by up to one month. In the case of Wales, the power is held by the Secretary of State for Wales. Eagle-eyed Members will have noticed that I have tabled a series of new clauses to deal with that eventuality: in particular new clause 4, which refers to the devolved legislatures in general, and new clause 5, which refers to the Welsh situation in particular. Those new clauses would provide a mechanism for varying the date of the National Assembly for Wales general election and the elections to the other devolved legislatures in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by between two months, and 12 months and a week, so as to avoid a clash with UK parliamentary elections under the new fixed-term system.
I also tabled related amendments to the Government of Wales Act 1998, which would transfer those powers from the Secretary of State for Wales to the National Assembly for Wales, as I believe that a democratically elected body representing the people of Wales should be in charge of electoral conduct, not a Secretary of State who frequently has no mandate. Sadly, new clause 6 has not been selected by Mr Speaker, so we will not have the opportunity to debate that context fully.
Our amendments were tabled as it had become patently clear that the UK Government were planning to bury their head in the sand. My new clauses were tabled to ensure that the issue of separate general election dates for the devolved legislatures was discussed in Committee. To explain that in more detail, the various Acts of devolution allow for a variation of one month between the scheduled date for the election and a date on which it can be held, as I said earlier. Presumably those powers are to be used in exceptional circumstances to allow leeway should an unexpected occurrence take place, as happened in 2003 with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In contrast, clause 1(5) gives the UK Parliament the power to expand that period to two months under those circumstances. I presume that in neither case was it assumed that the date would be varied because of another election being held on the same day. In Wales and Northern Ireland, those powers to vary the date of the general election are in the hands of the respective Secretary of State, whereas in Scotland they are, I believe, in the hands of the Presiding Officer.
In the absence of any indication from the UK Government that they plan to deal with the issues raised by holding UK parliamentary and devolved legislature elections on the same date, our new clauses would provide a mechanism for holding devolved elections on a separate date at least two months before or after the UK parliamentary election, yet no more than 12 months and one week before or after that election. The date of the devolved legislature election would be recommended by the appropriate authority, with the consent of the devolved body. Two months is the absolute minimum that one could expect to be the difference between one set of elections and another. Under those circumstances, we would expect the devolved legislatures to recommend holding an election either close to the opposing equinox-be that late spring, between March and May, or mid-autumn, at the end of September or in October-or a full year apart, as we do at the moment, with the UK election taking place in May this year and the devolved legislatures going to the polls in May 2011. The clock would then be reset, so that the next election would take place approximately four years later, on the first Thursday in May.
The nature of fixed-term Parliaments-let us remember that we have had no need for early, extraordinary general elections in Wales or Scotland since their introduction-means that changes can be made in a timely and orderly fashion, so that nobody is in any doubt about when the next election will take place. However, this is not a perfect solution. It allows for variations in the length of a Parliament or Assembly, and therefore changes the notion of a fixed-term Parliament or Assembly. We made our suggestion to remind the Government that a problem exists and that the present restrictions do not allow enough time to avoid a hangover from one election to the next, even if they are held a month apart, not least for our exhausted election campaign teams, never mind the public.
The variation of one month between elections, which legislation currently makes possible, is better than holding them on the same date, but is clearly not sufficient to ensure avoidance of cross-pollination between one electoral event and another. I have set out our preferred position, which is to have a sensible and systematic four-year, fixed-term Parliament. That would avoid all those problems. There is not a problem at the moment and nothing is broken, so why are we making trouble in the Bill?
To return to amendment 11, holding a UK election in May 2014, even under a five-year timetable, would at least provide more time to decide how to deal with the problems. If the UK election were held in 2014 and we continued with devolved legislature elections a year later, the next clash would not come until 2019, giving us a further electoral cycle to come to terms with the issue. That is not an ideal solution-I have made it clear that I believe that a four-year fixed term would be considerably preferable-but it would at least buy additional time to debate and enact safeguards.
Two suggestions other than ours have been made. One is worthy of further discussion, although I do not necessarily agree with it. It was suggested by Professor Hazell, and it is that UK general elections should take place in October, thereby ensuring separation from all other elections. I would like to hear the Government's thoughts on that proposal because it might solve some of the issues that I have raised today. The weather would still be mild, it would be during the school term, and it would still be British summer time. The greatest problem would surely be MPs having to give up their summer holidays to campaign. It is also the conference season.
Another alternative, if we assume that the new political cycle will be five years and not four, is that the term of devolved Administrations should be changed to represent this new reality and should elect their Members every five years, thereby avoiding the concerns that I have laid before the House today. Again, that is not the favoured outcome of my party, and it is not the policy of any of the devolved legislatures or their Governments, but it is another solution that can be offered to meet some of the problems created by the Bill.
My amendment to hold UK parliamentary elections every fourth year, rather than every fifth year as in the Bill, is not the only one being spoken to today. Austin Mitchell will argue on amendments 7, 8, 9 and 10 that elections should be held every third year. On Second Reading, he referred to Australia and New Zealand, which are both great countries and both great rugby countries. Australia is led by a woman who originally came from Barry in Wales, and New Zealand is an example of the possibilities for a coherent coalition Government. However, I am rejecting this suggestion for some of the same reasons that I believe that a five-year term should be rejected: that it is not in keeping with the UK's traditional four-year electoral cycle.
Lord Asquith referred to the length of terms and the ability to provide a parliamentary legislative term between elections every three years. In my opinion, three years would be too short for a Government to come into being, develop their legislative programme and begin to enact it before being judged by the electorate. Four years seems to be a far more suitable time frame for people to judge whether a Government has been successful in keeping to their mandate and in improving the country.
Under amendment 32, tabled by Mr Allen and others, the date of an election would be enshrined in the Bill, and would be held on the first Thursday in May every five years, irrespective of any extraordinary general elections, instead of the clock ticking again after an early election. If the amendment were accepted, we might find ourselves with more frequent clashes than once every 20 years between elections, and if that were unacceptable in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it would be doubly so if it took place because of instability in this place.
One problem of not restarting the clock at every election is the possibility, or even the probability, of a lame-duck Government. If an election were held three and a half years into the term, a Government elected democratically at the polls would have only 18 months before facing the people again. As I have outlined, that is not enough time for a serious parliamentary legislative programme to be enacted, so it makes no sense to return to the polls so soon after an extraordinary election. This is where we must trade off between the certainty of knowing every election date until Wales and Scotland leave the Union with the practicalities of governing, so I shall not support amendment 32.
I am arguing today in favour of a four-year fixed-term Parliament, beginning with this current parliamentary term, with the next election taking place on
In our view, the decision should be made at the appropriate level.
There are four-year electoral terms for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and all other devolved bodies and councils. The arrangements should be the same for the UK Parliament. We do not yet know when we will be voting for the House of Lords, a principle whose implementation we have been awaiting for quite some time, or for our police commissioners-an idea that excites no one save those on the Government Benches. The five-year terms of the European Parliament are an aberration from our electoral norm. The proposals in the Bill would also be an aberration.
A four-year Parliament beginning in 2014 would have the advantage of avoiding the problems associated with clashes between UK general elections and those of the devolved legislatures, which are many. The Bill has been presented to Parliament as a fait accompli, with no good reason as to why the next election must be in 2015 and why there must be five-year Parliaments. Political expediency is not the best principle on which to base good law-making. I fully support the concept of fixed-term Parliaments, but I cannot support a five-year fixed-term Parliament that will have strongly negative effects on democracy. I hope that the UK Government will see sense on this matter and respond positively to this suggestion, rather than putting their head in the sand and trying to brazen through a five-year parliamentary term without consensus in this House or among the other Parliaments in the UK. We shall be pressing amendments 11 and 12 to a vote, and we will not support clause 1 if it remains in its present format.
I shall support all those amendments that propose a four-year fixed-term Parliament, and in so doing I shall invoke someone who when I was growing up was considered a great Liberal. Mr Asquith spoke in the Chamber that preceded this one, and, in a recent debate on
"In the first place we propose to shorten the legal duration of Parliament from seven years to five years, which will probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years. That will secure that your House of Commons for the time being, is always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or-and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will-it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship."-[ Official Report,
Asquith's reasons have been borne out in all the years since then. The average length of a Parliament is not far off four years, and his points relate to the electorate. None of the constitutional proposals of the Deputy Prime Minister-who I again note is not following his own Bill on the Floor of the House of Commons-strengthens the position of the electorate versus the Crown as represented by the Government. The proposals are therefore abandoning the principle that a Government have the authority to govern but must be mindful that there is a time after which the electorate should make a judgment on the actions, activities and success of that Government. That is all being cast out for what I believe to be a profoundly cynical purpose: the entrenchment, or attempted entrenchment, of a particular Parliament for five years. That requires a Bill. I do not know whether it is possible to present clause stand part arguments on the basis of parliamentary privilege and the series of very serious arguments that lie behind what we are discussing.
The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he said that the Bill was really all about the current Parliament, and about holding the coalition together. No thought has been given to what it actually means for the future; it is just about holding the coalition together today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I believe that that will be the wider judgment. What was reflected in a previous Bill is emphasised in this Bill.
The Bill has not, of course, received pre-legislative scrutiny in the traditional way, but nor did Asquith's Bill. That Bill was an attempt to bring together the threads of our constitutional history. What distresses me most about this constitutional arrangement, and the actions of the coalition Government, is that they think that we are all back-of-the-envelope legislators who set aside the traditions and history of our own constitution. They are trying to legislate for something that I believe is unnecessary. A Government last for as long as that Government can command a majority in the House of Commons: that is a fundamental constitutional proposition in the Parliament Act.
My hon. Friend will know that I share many of his fears about the Bill, along with the other constitutional change that has been proposed. However, in so far as we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, might it not be regarded as even more cynical if we moved away from the five-year norm which has, as my hon. Friend says, been in place for the last 99 years, even if that five-year norm is a maximum?
The point is that the coalition Government have set their heart on five years, so that is the proposition that we are examining. I was trying to advance the arguments that were presented to the House as recently as 1911, but the post-1945 chart, featuring 17 or 18 elections, shows that, in all but four cases, the average length of a Government has been about four years. The principle behind that is fairly closely related to what Asquith said. It is right that there should have been a recent renewal of a Government's mandate; it is right that a Government should be mindful that they face an election. But if we are to adopt fixed-term Parliaments, what is the right period, given that the Government concerned command a majority in the House?
In fact, there have been 17 elections since 1945, and the average length of a Government has been three years and 10 months. Does my hon. Friend agree that when the four-year term has been the norm, that has been because a Government have gone to the country at the time that they feel is best for them, whereas when a term lasts for the full five years, that has generally been because the Government in question had very little choice? In other words, there has been an element of expediency-one might even call it cynicism-behind the actions of Governments who have used the maximum five-year term for their own benefit.
There is, of course, no question about that in my mind. Governments will try to engineer an election at the moment that is most convenient for them, although it may not be the best point in the cycle of public opinion, or relate to the sense of the House as a settled House.
The hon. Gentleman said that Asquith's Bill did not receive pre-legislative scrutiny. Does he agree that we might be more relaxed about a lack of pre-legislative scrutiny if the Government were willing to reach out, listen, and take ideas on board-considered ideas that were not on the back of an envelope? May I suggest, in the context of new clause 4, that whether we support four years or five, it makes sense to allow other legislatures in the United Kingdom to alter, or tweak, what they are doing in relation to either Westminster or a five-year term?
There is a simple amendment which the hon. Gentleman did not table, and which was not discussed in the lengthy and closely read speech of Jonathan Edwards. That amendment would state that the general election must take place on, let us say, the first Thursday in October. That would meet the point for which the hon. Gentleman argued at such great length-that he should not have to deal with the coincidence of elections on the same day. He did not table that simple amendment, however, and as it is not on the amendment paper I cannot speak to it.
I find Professor Blackburn a most interesting speaker on the constitution. In the evidence he gave in a memorandum on electoral law and administration, he makes the following point:
"In the UK, there can be little doubt that the period between general elections should be four years."
That is what we are debating now, and it is arguable. He continues:
"The proposal for fixed term Parliament as a whole should fit as closely as possible into existing constitutional expectations, and the idea that four years is about the right length of time between elections is very prevalent. It was the period expressly approved of as being normal in practice, when the Parliament Act set the period of five years as a maximum."
That is a reference back to Asquith. Professor Blackburn goes on to say:
"In an ideal democracy it may be that there should be elections as frequently as possible-even annually as supported by the Chartists in the eighteenth century".
Austin Mitchell, who is present, has tabled an amendment proposing a period of three years, and we could refer back to the Chartists, so it is clear that these arguments were not unfamiliar at different times in the history of this country. There was an argument that we should have annual elections; that was a powerful movement in the early 19th century. It was thought that Parliaments and Governments must not move too far from the opinion of the public and the electorate.
Professor Blackburn's speech is particularly interesting, because he goes on to say- [Interruption.] Well, I will let the hon. Gentleman read it out then, because the key point is in the following paragraph.
I have lost my place as a result of the hon. Gentleman's intervention, so let me recap what Professor Blackburn said:
"It was the period expressly approved of as being normal in practice, when the Parliament Act set the period of five years as a maximum. In an ideal democracy it may be that there should be elections as frequently as possible-even annually as supported by the Chartists in the eighteenth century-but a government must be allowed a sufficient period of time in which to put its programme of public policies into effect before submitting its record of achievement, or otherwise, to the voters. Three full legislative sessions, and certainly four, is sufficient for this purpose."
I believe that that is correct.
I agree with the point made in the quotation that the hon. Gentleman has read out; indeed, I was going to refer to that passage in my speech. For the sake of accuracy, however, I should point out that the Chartists were really in the 19th century, not the 18th. I hope that that does not invalidate the historical record.
What a trivial point, but I thought I had said the 19th century. I stand corrected if I did not, and I am sorry if I misinformed the Committee. [Interruption.] No, I do not think I was quoting at that point. [Interruption.] I said the 19th century, I think. I am well aware of that fact; it was part of my own training.
The central issue, however, is the legitimacy of Governments and the determination of what is the right period for enabling the people to have a view, and control, over the Crown as represented by the Government in this place.
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. I can see from his face that he is not particularly happy about it. However, may I ask him to make his position clear? Does he feel that there should still be flexibility in the calling of elections, or does he support a four-year term? I am a little confused as to where he is taking his argument.
I am sorry if that is the case. I am speaking in support of those amendments that call for a four-year Parliament, as opposed to the Government's position, which is that there should be five-year Parliaments. I accept, of course, that Governments face exigencies. We well remember that Mr Blair postponed an announced date of an election because of a nationwide country alarm over foot and mouth disease. There has to be an element of flexibility for such circumstances. War would clearly alter the schedule for elections too, and Parliament has within its means the ability to extend the period at such times, because this is the sovereign body for the United Kingdom. That point should be borne in mind: however much I may rejoice in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament, in Wales and the Welsh Assembly, and in the arrangements in Northern Ireland, the Westminster Parliament is the fount of the authority under which national elections for this place are held. Therefore, although the House should bear in mind any exegesis on inconveniences, ultimately it is for those of us who are sent here by the people to represent them to decide what is in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole in the formation of a Parliament that holds to account the Government whose Members sit on the Treasury Bench in this House. That is all; I am, in truth, making a very simple argument. I think four years is more appropriate than five. That is what this is about. I think there is sufficient flexibility.
I have cited certain authorities, such as Professor Blackburn and Asquith. I do not want the argument to be lost to a lot of academic writers, however. Professor Hazell at University College London is a former civil servant; he worked in the Cabinet Office. I want to hear about the great constitutional writers who informed past debates, but that is singularly missing when this House comes to discuss what is right. We do not talk about the experience of previous times.
What is the reasoning behind this clause? It appears to suit the personal convenience of a coalition. Most people I meet see and understand that perfectly well. Why would we support such a measure if we are representing the people and the interests of this House of Commons? That is the burden of the arguments I am putting forward for a four-year term rather than five years.
I also want to repeat that I regret that the Government have made no case for five years. That has been a major omission in all these constitutional debates. They assert, without authority or reference to anything, that the needs are such that five years is somehow a more suitable period. By and large, I do not believe in international comparisons, but I note that most modern democracies-the United States, for instance, with its 200-year-old constitution and President-work to a four-year cycle in determining who is to be their chief executive. The United States works to a six-year cycle, with third terms, for the Senate, and a two-year cycle for its equivalent body to our House of Commons. Our tradition has been different.
Does my hon. Friend not appreciate that if we are to have a fixed-term for this Parliament, five years is the only acceptable period? If any other term had been proposed, that would have been felt to be entirely cynical. Is not my hon. Friend's argument essentially that these changes should only be put in place for future Parliaments? We were all elected on
I was elected under the law as it then stood, and I expected that the length of term in place at the time would apply. I also expected that any Prime Minister would make decisions in that context. As well as my question of the relationship of the electorate to the House of Commons to the Executive, there is another that hangs over this entire argument: why do we need any of this? What improvement does it bring to the current position?
The proposal suits the Government for their own purposes, and that is why the nation at large is cautious, as are many Members on both sides of this Chamber.
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that many of us may well be cautious, because although we are concentrating on the question of a fixed-term Parliament, when we move on we will be examining the question of an early general election and questions of confidence-confidence in whom and for what? We will also deal with whether such questions should be decided by a simple majority or one of two thirds. These hugely important questions go straight to the heart of the future of this Parliament.
My hon. Friend is, of course, right. This is a hugely important constitutional Bill and we should not doubt that. Every commentator of any serious worth has noted that this is an enormously important constitutional issue and we will try to tickle out its ramifications, including for parliamentary privilege, within our very tight timetable. What he says is true and just, and we should listen to it.
I note my hon. Friend's observations about America. Of course, its terms really are fixed: the Senate cannot alter its six years, the President cannot alter his four years and Congress cannot alter its two years. What we are saying, which is consistent with the Parliament Act 1911, is that five years would be the expected norm. As my hon. Friend Mr Cash notes, at least two mechanisms could bring an end to a Parliament should this House decide, so we are stopping the Prime Minister from having an election early for expedient purposes. Instead, we are saying that there should be a five-year term, as suggested in 1911 and as used by several Parliaments afterwards-
I make the gentlest of suggestions to my hon. Friend that he misleads himself. I provided the quote from Asquith which set out the position as the House then understood it, and it has turned out, by and large, to be correct over the intervening years. I do not want so to close down the options of this House that when a Government fail or cannot command a majority there is not a general election, as such an election is necessary for the public will. However, as the long title makes clear, we are looking at a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the suggestion on the table is for the term to last five years. I do not understand where my hon. Friend is coming from if he thinks that in 1911 the proposal was for a full five-year term-it was not.
This is a most intriguing debate and my hon. Friend speaks with great passion and impartiality about these important matters. Surely this Parliament can opt for a five-year Parliament but it cannot bind future Parliaments. Should those Parliaments wish to change the arrangement, they will be able to opt for a four-year or a three-year Parliament, or whatever they should wish for at the time.
But the options are closing. This measure is part of a constitutional package. We passed a piece of legislation that may introduce a new electoral system and that may ensure that no one party has an overall majority in the future, so to say that we are able to change something will be a matter of great negotiation across the Floor of the House. That is why I am very cautious about accepting changes to established norms and constitutional practice as we have experienced it over my lifetime and since 1911.
The hon. Gentleman talks of Asquith, but may I bring him up to date with perhaps a less illustrious modern Liberal, the Deputy Prime Minister? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this measure is all about survival? It is about a Liberal deal to try to get this coalition through and not at all about any great, grand constitutional reform. It is about the survival of the Liberals in this Government.
We all draw our own conclusions, and I suggested something. What we are clear about is that the Deputy Prime Minister has just repudiated Liberal Democrat-as they now call themselves-fixed positions on two Bills. The first was the voting system, and the Liberals are doing the same on this measure; they had a fixed position but it is gone. We ask what the motives are, but there is no point in my attributing motives-the world and its wife will do that for us, so we do not need to worry about it.
What we want to maintain is the constitutional right of the people we represent and the balance of power within this Chamber between the Opposition and the Government, and between Front Benchers and Back Benchers. All that is now at risk and has been for a long time. We have to have that respect in ourselves back in this House; we have to believe that we can talk to Government freely and frankly. The purpose of my speech was, in part, to create a debate, rather than just to make a statement of fixed positions, because the calibration of each Member of Parliament is an important right in itself. This House must find that when dealing with something that most of us have not experienced before: a coalition. One party of that coalition took no part in the negotiations that formed what I call the "image of gold" but what is known as the coalition agreement; no one on my side formed that, other than those who are now in the Executive. So this matter is very difficult and very sensitive, which is why people are very delicate about it. However, we are now dealing with the substance of our old constitution and the merits of that, and it is its merits that I believe are stronger than the proposals put forward by the coalition.
I rise to speak to amendments 7 and 8, which stand in my name and ask for triennial Parliaments. That makes me feel positively like a constitutional Trotskyite, coming forward as the blazing radical in this song and dance for a five-year or four-year term. Amendment 11, which proposes a four-year term, is perfectly acceptable as it is a good amendment. Mr Shepherd quoted from Asquith's powerful and effective speech. I was going to refer to it at length, but I shall not now do so because he has given us it pretty well in full. That speech set out that in legislating for five-year terms the then Liberal Government were actually saying that the expectation would be for earlier elections, so that was to be a maximum term, not the norm. The provision before us attempts to create a norm of five years.
If the hon. Gentleman bides his time a little, I shall deal with exactly that point. He is making the very sensible point that bad Parliaments last for five years and Governments in precarious or disastrous situations try to hang on for as long as possible. That perhaps indicates why he is not going to support this Bill: it is an indication that his Government are going to try to hang on for as long as possible-for five years.
At least one manifesto that has come to my mind was entitled "The Next Five Years"; I believe it referred to 1959 to 1964, and so it turned out to be. So at least then the norm was five years, and there really are more normal expectations of that than meet the eye.
Again, that was because the then Government were hanging on, as Macmillan was replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. They had to hang on to the bitter end, which was October 1964, because they were disastrously placed in the polls. That is another example to support my argument, which is that bad Governments want the maximum. This Government are a bad Government and they are trying to legislate for the maximum-they are trying to set bad practice in concrete.
As I listen to the hon. Gentleman, I wonder whether cause and effect are a bit mixed up. One complaint that we have had in the past is about the Government holding an election at a time of their choice when they feel the runes are looking good for them rather than fixing the democratic process in some way so that the gerrymandering of polity and of the climate in the country could not happen. The idea of having a fixed Parliament is exactly that. It is best fixed at four years, I think-the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is best fixed at three-but the problem in the past has been that it has been for five years and was then cut short. It is not the length of time that makes a Government bad; it is just that bad Governments run out of time but would keep going for six or seven years if they possibly could.
I accept that point. The argument for fixed terms used to be that Governments would manipulate the economy to suit their own purposes and would go to the country when it suited them. Now Governments are so disastrously buffeted by economic circumstances that they will seek to hang on as long as possible.
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. First, it is not necessary for Neil Carmichael to wave-he simply has to stand up. Secondly, can we stay within the scope of the amendments? I think the Attlee Government might be a little wide of them.
The second Attlee Government lasted from 1950 to 1951. However, that was an attempt to detour me and I do not want to be detoured down all the happy little roads that Government Members would rather turn us into.
I think that four years is perfectly acceptable. It would be good and I would be happy to support-indeed, I will support-that amendment. Three years would be better. It is not a downward option-it is not like the old programme that Yorkshire Television used to do, so that we go five, four, "3-2-1". I will not go as low as the Chartists' demand for annual Parliaments; I am staying at three. Around the world, a pattern can be seen-the more democratic the society and the polity, the more frequent and regular are the elections. I would put at the head of that democratic tree Australia and New Zealand, which have three-year Parliaments that work happily. I used to write about New Zealand that if there was a seizure of power by the Chinese Communists, New Zealanders would still be standing outside the polls in November of every third year ready to vote because they have the conditioned habit of voting. It is a good conditioned habit and three years is a good term.
That is the key issue for the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. They do not care whether it is a fixed Parliament or not, but it has to be five years in order to preserve their political position.
I agree entirely. I am sorry to have interrupted my hon. Friend's intervention with the answer to the question, but that is right. This is an arrangement by two parties seeking to hang together, to bind themselves to each other and to carry on for five years. There is no system of constitutional thought or political theory-it is sheer, simple opportunism.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Mr Shepherd did not give the key quote from Professor Blackburn, who said:
"It is likely that the Coalition's concern with concretising its political alliance, and having the longest period possible in which to implement its tax increases and cuts in public expenditure and then recover sufficient popularity in time for its next meeting with the electorate, has affected its judgement in this matter."
Is it not politics that is driving this rather than any grander constitutional vision?
As an ex-academic, I find that the best way of alienating the House is to quote other academics, so may I just say yes to that question and move on?
I was making the point that around the world, the most democratic polities-I gave Australia and New Zealand as the examples-have more frequent and more regular elections. The less democratic polities have longer spaces between elections-witness the French presidential system, where it was seven years, or the old British constitution when it was an oligarchical system with seven-year terms. This is an issue of basic democracy.
The measure is not an attempt to think about the constitution and to reform it along sensible lines; it is a political fix. The Government have just gone for the longest time they think they can possibly get away with. That is it. They want the coalition to be bound together, nailed together and stuck together for five years and they hope that they can do that with this measure. They are entrenching bad practice. Most Governments in this century have gone for shorter terms than sitting out the maximum. As I said earlier, it is only the bad Governments-the failing Governments-who have gone right up to the buffers. Governments who are in a mess cling on because they are deeply unpopular.
I am baffled-I mentioned Governments in a mess and a Government Member stands up to tell me that the mess was bigger than I thought it was. Is that the point he is making? My point is quite simple. There are deeply unpopular Governments-Governments in such a state as this Government have reduced themselves to in six short months-who hang on to power.
Falling behind in the polls, implementing unpopular measures, failing and visibly disagreeing with each other-is that not a description of the coalition Government at present? They have achieved that after six months. It took John Major's Government more than four years-certainly within five-to reach the state that this Government have reached in six months. That is my point. Governments in that situation normally try to hang on. The two examples that I would give are the Major Government, which went right to the buffers, and my own Labour Government this year, which should have gone to the country in 2007, when a new Prime Minister took over, but hung on hoping for better things that did not come.
I see another detour on the route map so I shall not go down that road. I had my own proposals once for a maximum six-year term for Prime Ministers. The current Prime Minister said during the course of the election that if the Prime Minister changed, there should be an election within six months of that change-something that seems to be missing from the Bill but which have been relevant.
The Government are trying to entrench bad practice in this Bill and our amendments-mine for a very democratic three years and amendment 11 for four years, a sensible and statesmanlike version of my democratic stirrings-are trying to stop them doing so.
The hon. Gentleman talked about bad practice. Does he agree that an example of the worst sort of bad practice was the farce that was the autumn of 2007 and the election that never was?
I just said that it would have been sensible had the Labour Government gone to the country in 2007-not only because we would have won, but because it was good and it would have been right to ask for a new mandate for a new Prime Minister. The Labour Government made a mistake and in consequence they hung on too long towards the end. I cannot see that I can break down and make any more confessions in the Chamber. That is an assessment of political reality. That is what Governments who are in difficulty do-they hang on-and that is what the Bill seeks to entrench.
My hon. Friend is making some very good points about Governments hanging on for five years, but is not the crucial point that if all precedent and practice in this country are for four-year Governments, and four-year terms for other directly elected positions, the Government need to advance a strong case for extending the period to five years? They simply have not done that; indeed they refuse to do so. Is that not what we should consider today?
I agree absolutely, but that argument relates to amendment 11, which seeks four-year terms, whereas I am arguing for more democratic three-year terms, so I must have a more radical argument than the statesmanlike argument that we have just heard. We should all ask ourselves where the five-year period comes from. Where have the Government plucked it from? What is the inspiration behind the Bill? Perhaps we could have some explanation of why a five-year period has been chosen. It was not in the Conservative party manifesto.
And trains could run on time, but they do not always. If the hon. Lady had been here for the speech by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, she would have heard the answer: five-year terms are the maximum, but the expectation is that Governments will go to the country sooner. Most do go sooner because that is sensible practice, which is what the amendment seeks to install.
I am afraid that I have to disagree. There is no expectation that a Parliament should run other than for five years. In the past century, there have been some five-year and some four-year Parliaments. There is no such expectation, but there is a law and it says five years.
It says up to five years, and the Government are seeking to make five years the compulsory length of a term, so far as they can entrench that in the constitution. Had the hon. Lady heard the preceding debate, she would have realised that, historically, most Governments have gone to the country before their five years were up.
Parliament will have the power to dissolve Parliament on a two-thirds vote, I think, in this ludicrous legislation, so I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am saying that we should legislate for three-year Parliaments, which would be sensible, and I am asking where the five-year term has come from. How did it come into the heads of this Government? Did it spring fully armed from the head of the Prime Minister?
I have taken enough interventions for the time being. I want to make a few points of my own instead of being forced to respond to questions about hypothetical situations that I have not dealt with.
The Conservative party did not mention fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto, but we did: Labour had a fixed four-year term in its manifesto. The Liberals, insofar as they had a position-they always have a lot of contradictory positions-had what the Deputy Leader of the House said when he was their spokesman on constitutional affairs, when he urged four-year terms. Perhaps he has had a message from the new leadership telling him to rescind his speeches from when he was the Liberals' constitutional affairs spokesman. Will he listen? I know that he is very comfortable on the Front Bench-he is built for it-but there is no need for him to change his views on this issue so radically and dramatically as he seems to have done.
So the Liberals wanted four-year terms, the Conservatives had nothing about it in their manifesto and I argue that five-year terms are too long. I agree that we should have had an election in 2007. That would have meant the Labour Government going much sooner. Why am I proposing three-year terms? The Executive always want longer terms, because they want to be in power for as long as they can and because longer terms allow more time for more mistakes and for tough measures to hit the people. There are certainly some tough measures coming from this Government, which might be why they want a five-year term. Regular and more frequent elections hand power back to the people, which is what the people want. They want us kept on a shorter leash. That is what the feeling of hostility to politics, Parliament, parties and politicians that built up last year indicated to me. Triennial elections would certainly keep us on a shorter leash because we would have to go back to the people more regularly. They are suspicious of us; they think that we are out for ourselves and they want to control us more effectively.
The hon. Gentleman is being customarily generous in giving way. Does the experience in the congressional elections in the United States not show that their two-year terms mean that members of Congress, once re-elected, are constantly considering fundraising, canvassing and campaigning for their re-election, thereby undermining the electorate's faith and trust in them?
The US House of Representatives, which is the equivalent to our House, has a two-year term, which is very democratic, but I am proposing a three-year term, which would cause us to go back to the people much more regularly than we do now. The people want to be heard. An outstanding feature of our democracy as it has developed is the people's desire to be listened to by this place, which they so angrily asserted in 2009. It is frustrating for people to feel that we do not listen. What better way is there of consulting the people? We should do it not through polls but through regular elections, as in Australia and New Zealand, where three-year terms work very effectively.
The people want us to be accountable, and more regular elections are the best way of keeping us accountable. Elections bring a great renewal of energy and contact with the people. They are great for concentrating our role of representing them and voicing what they want in this place; they recharge the batteries. More frequent elections would make us more vulnerable, more amenable and more prepared to listen to the people because we would have to be out there every three years listening to and meeting people and persuading them in a way that is not provided for anywhere else in our system.
This House is a great hiding place: the longer we stay here between elections, the more out of touch with the people we get. They want us to be more accountable and to listen more and they want more frequent contact. We cannot dodge that responsibility or say that reasons of statesmanship or coalition politics require us to stay hiding in this place, out of touch with the people, for five years. The condition of our being here is that we need to renew that contact as regularly as possible.
I seem to have been here for so long that I could have come in with that Asquith election victory that led to reform of the House of Lords in 1910, but I began my political career by dreading elections because one has to go out and force oneself on people and they may not want that. One has to leap up to them with a handshake and a fixed grin. One has to give them one's opinions, listen to them and ask them questions-talk to them. That was a nervous ordeal for me and I was terrified, but over time I have come to like elections more and more, particularly if I win. That is another reason why I would like more frequent elections. They are a form of renewal and of contact with the real world that we do not otherwise get in this place.
It is very entertaining to hear about the hon. Gentleman's campaigning techniques and fixed grin, but would three-year terms not simply promote short-termism? One thing that the electorate do not want is short-term thinking in their Governments and politicians. They want them to take the right long-term decisions for the good of the country.
And what happens now as Governments sit in power for up to five years? They tremble at what the Daily Mail says to them about the angry middle classes, they fear what The Daily Telegraph says and they are denounced by the Daily Express. That kind of jelly-like impact is something that I want to avoid. Let us not listen to what the Daily Mail tells us the people think-let us listen to the people. Let us go back and listen to them more frequently, because their opinions are honest. They are not distorted for some party political purpose by a newspaper like the Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph, which caused my Government and cause this Government to quake. Let us listen to the people and not to those who arrogate the voice of the people for their own purposes.
Elections bring us into contact with a section of the electorate that cannot speak through the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Express-the deprived, the poor, the unemployed. Our job is to serve those people, and elections are a means of renewing that contact, which is difficult to maintain with the parliamentary week, the legislation before us and the burdens of this life. Elections send us out to the people-all levels, all ranks, all types of people. We are open and exposed, we are there to answer their questions and to talk to them, listen to them and discuss with them.
That is why elections should be more frequent. They are basic to the democratic process. They are not a David Dimbleby-fest, a David Butler-fest or a psephology-fest-a calculation of figures. They are a people-fest.
The hon. Gentleman is always entertaining, and I pay tribute to the fact that on the day the Labour party lost a 22,000 majority in 1977, they returned the hon. Gentleman in Grimsby, but will he tell the House how many people in the Dog and Duck in Great Grimsby have said to him, "I won't vote for you, Mr Mitchell, because the term will be five years instead of four "?
None, but perhaps people will not vote for a candidate because he is too old and might not last a full term. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the issue is not frequently raised, but there is a feeling, and there was at the end of the previous Government and at the end of the Major Government, that the Government have gone on too long. That is what I want to avoid.
There is a feeling among the public that they want us to go back to them more frequently. They want to meet us more frequently. They want us out there in the streets, canvassing more frequently. That is why I say that more frequent and regular elections are basic to democracy. They put the people in power and they make the politicians prostrate before the people. The people can tell us what they want, and that is what it is all about.
The role of the House, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, is to hold power to account-to hold the Executive to account. We do not do it very well because, with a party majority, the Executive and the Prime Minister drive a steamroller through the House. Mrs Thatcher would shout down at us "Get out of the way," and we would tremble. With John Major, the steamroller wandered all over the place, but the Executive are still powerful.
The only real way of holding power to account in this country is to put it before the people more regularly in triennial elections and give them the power to throw the rascals out-give them that choice every three years. That is basic to democracy.
And does not the Front Bench demonstrate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making? There is not one Cabinet Minister in attendance on an issue of constitutional principle. There is no one arguing or representing the Administration in a proper sense on a major Bill. As he well knows, I respect the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper, but the point is made.
I accept that point from my hon. Friend. It is a shame that even the Deputy Leader of the House has gone out to check whether he supported four years when he was a constitutional affairs spokesman-or was it three and a half? He is probably on his BlackBerry now, checking the figures. It is demonstrably wrong that a Government should propose to the House a basic alteration to the constitution, which has enormous constitutional repercussions and which has not been discussed or properly assessed or pre-digested, force it though by a party majority, and not bother to attend the debates to speak in favour of it.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly outlined the need for the democratic process to operate over a three, four or five-year period, but does he agree that there is something wrong with such a Bill coming before Westminster without consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament to have their view on the process, so that we can all have a democratic say about what happens?
I agree absolutely. That is the best indication that this is a constitutional fix, a coalition deal, a rather squalid political manoeuvre, rather than a matter that can be discussed and presented to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and discussed with the legislatures there, because it has repercussions for them as it does for us.
I had better come to a conclusion. The conclusion is simple: three-year Parliaments would give the people the power that they need and want not only to keep us accountable, but to throw the rascals out-throw out the Government if they do not like them-every three years. I hope it is a power that they can exercise sooner than May 2015 on the present lot.
I shall make a short contribution. I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment tabled by Jonathan Edwards for a four-year term. I am not quite so enamoured with the idea of three years, and I shall say something about that in a moment.
However, I could not agree with the manner and the tone of some of the contributions in the past hour or two from the Opposition Benches. Silly comments about Con-Dem Governments, political posturing and so on are not helpful to an important debate about the constitution of this country. I do not believe for one moment that any kind of dodgy, underhand dealing is going on.
It is important to remember that the subject of the Bill is not one that electrifies the public. We are all in agreement about that. In the Dog and Duck they do not talk about it. In my village the pub is well known-the Percy Arms-and the topic does not come up a great deal there. It is not something that people are talking about or that is tripping off people's tongues, but that does not mean it is not important. It should be debated properly. Perhaps that is a partial response to the right hon. Lady's point.
I have been staggered by some of the comments by Opposition Members-the feigned outrage about a five-year term. Many of them were in the previous Government over the last five years- [Interruption.] Sadly, the country knows what it was like as well. I want a four-year term because the experience of the last Government, and perhaps earlier Governments, shows that a five-year term is not necessarily in the best interests of the country. Governments generally expect to go to four years, although there is no requirement for them to do so. When they have run to five years, it is usually because they have known that they were about to be booted out by the electorate. We thus end up with a year of incredibly poor decision making, and this Government have to deal with the consequences of the appalling decisions taken in the last year of the Brown Government.
On my hon. Friend's point about Governments campaigning in the last year, one of the things that I find most disturbing is the premise that in a five-year Parliament, Members take no notice of their constituents until the last year. That may explain why the majority of Austin Mitchell fell to just 714.
I hope that politicians on all sides take notice of their electorate at all times. The problem with going to a three-year term is that they may take less notice of their constituents and a great deal more notice of the newspapers. Given that Governments tend to be most responsive to newspapers in the last year or six months before an election, the risk with a three-year term is that the Government would be beholden to the newspapers and chasing headlines for the entire term of office.
On the clash of elections, I have sympathy with those representing countries with devolved Assemblies. I would not want a Welsh Assembly election or a Scottish Parliament election on the same day as a general election, but it is a bit inconsistent for some on the Opposition Benches to suggest that a clash of elections is always bad news, because they deliberately arranged for that by holding European and local government elections on the same day, using two different voting systems. However, that is best avoided. I accept that the case for a general election is a little different and that a general election should be held separately from the elections in the devolved regions.
I have no academic or study to quote on the four-year term; I just feel in my gut that it is the right length of time for a Government. A four-year term is better because it would fit with local government elections and devolved assemblies. The Canadian Government changed from five to four years a couple of years ago, and we have heard about the three-year terms that exist in Australia and New Zealand. For me, four years would be a more appropriate term for us to be in office. There is an acceptance that after being in power for five years, we tend to be a little too detached from the electorate, and consequently end up making bad decisions. However, I cannot support the three-year term proposed by my near neighbour, next door but one, in Great Grimsby. That would throw us into a perpetual state of elections. It is often said about US congressional elections that American Congressmen are in a perpetual state of election, which is why they have so many earmarks and pork barrelling; they have no sooner got themselves to Washington DC than they have to run back to their electorates to try to gain election.
My hon. Friend refers to the American political system and reiterates my earlier point, but is it not true that at the other end of the scale US Senators, who have a six-year term, can take a broader view of both national and international issues? Very few people say to an experienced American Senator that they are past it or clapped out, or not thinking of the good of the country because they are in their fifth or sixth year.
The problem with the American Senator term is that a third of the Senate is elected every two years, which means that they, too, are in a perpetual state of elections, so that idea does not carry over completely.
The other experience of more regular elections is that there tends to be a greater propensity on the part of the electorate to re-elect their incumbents. As I am now an incumbent, that is not necessarily something that I would take issue with. I suspect that all hon. Members would be happy to see incumbents re-elected- [ Interruption. ] Well, yes, perhaps their own incumbency re-elected. I was particularly intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that elections offer the opportunity for politicians to recharge their batteries. That is certainly not an experience I have ever had in an election campaign.
Are not comparisons with the Congressional elections inappropriate, because Congressmen, by and large, manage to insulate themselves from the electorate because they do not have independent boundary commissions but negotiate their constituency boundaries so that 85% of the seats are safe? Therefore, there is no real comparison; when they go to face the electorate most of those Congressmen know they are going back.
I was involved in that in New Jersey in 2000. Such matters were determined on a state-by-state basis and depended very much on who was in control in that state. It is not quite the case that Congressmen themselves are busy dividing up their own seats, but there are examples where that happens.
I conclude where I started. For me, a four-year term feels more natural. As I said, I have no academic support for this argument. To go to the electorate every four years, which fits in properly with the elections in Scotland and Wales, feels the right thing to do. I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments and I look forward to the comments of Opposition Members who, having enjoyed a five-year term, now seek to criticise the Government for seeking to continue them.
I congratulate Jonathan Edwards on advancing his amendment before I got to the Table Office when I would have tabled exactly the same amendment. His alacrity is in the interest of the whole House, and he is right to have tabled his amendments, as I hope to lay out.
I also congratulate Mr Shepherd, who always speaks with an independence of mind, which compliments both the House and his electors. He is right that this is about the entrenchment of Government. This measure is not proposed because there has been some grand constitutional convention that has consulted the country about the appropriate length of the Parliament and has consulted academics or voters; it is simply here to entrench this Government at least until May 2015. That is primarily why it exists. Andrew Percy said that he felt-I was not sure whether he said in his waters or in his guts-that four years was better than five, and he is absolutely right. If one looks at the contributions made by most constitutional experts, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked us to do, all have said that four years is a better term than five. It is also right to say that the process that has been gone through for the Bill is inappropriate.
The Government have often said that in the first Session of a Parliament it is difficult to consult on Bills, because Parliament suddenly needs something to discuss. My argument would be that that is not the time to bring forward constitutional Bills. There may be legislation on other matters which has been well adumbrated in manifestos and well discussed, but it is wholly inappropriate to proceed with constitutional Bills without pre-legislative scrutiny and some attempt to bind together all the political parties so that there is an agreement that this not just a settlement for one Parliament or for five or six years, but one that will stand the test of time and last several decades.
Neil Carmichael said that this is a good idea because it will prevent the Prime Minister from being able to choose the date of the election. That is not true. The Bill makes it clear that the Prime Minister will always choose the actual date of a general election. It is perfectly possible for the Prime Minister to make sure that there will be a general election, as laid out in clauses 1 and 2, because Prime Ministers can, if they wish, engineer a vote of no confidence, precisely as happened in Germany in 1982 under Chancellor Kohl, and in 2005 under Chancellor Schröder. There is no reason why a Prime Minister should not choose to do that.
I will come on to why I think five years is an inappropriate length of time. However, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I will admit lots of things in this speech, but I will not admit what he has just told me to admit.
My argument is essentially that four years is a better term for a fixed Parliament than five years. A five-year legislative provision for a maximum length of a Parliament has served us not too badly and may well be okay, not least because it has meant in practical terms that Parliaments have tended to be more like four years, precisely as Asquith intended in 1911. But a fixed five-year term is overlong, and the main reason why we have that is because the Government want to continue until May 2015, which is an inappropriate use of constitutional reform.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole said that he was absolutely certain that there could not have been any underhand skulduggery. I think he was using irony, if not sarcasm, and irony does not always translate perfectly into Hansard. His Dog and Duck test is right. The vast majority of voters are not obsessed with the length of a Parliament, but they do know when a Parliament has had its day, and for the most part, by the time we get to four years in this country, certainly since the second world war, most electorates have started to say, "You know what, it's time we had a general election."
First, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there is no reason right now why this Parliament will not go to May 2015-it is perhaps just wishful thinking on the Opposition Benches-and, secondly, will he confirm whether his party supports fixed-term Parliaments?
Yes, I was just about to come on to the point that I wholeheartedly agree with fixed-term Parliaments. It was wrong for Conservative, Labour and, for that matter in the past, Liberal, Whig and any other kind of government to be able either to cut and run, as the Deputy Leader of the House said in a sedentary comment earlier, or to choose to hang on until something comes along. It is better to have a fixed term.
Interestingly, in 1950, Stafford Cripps-your predecessor, Ms Primarolo, by I do not know how many-argued forcefully to Clement Attlee that there should be a general election before a Budget, because, if the election were held after, it would look as if the Government were trying to bribe the electorate, which would be wholly inappropriate.
Those were the days, eh? When high-mindedness ruled.
The point is surely that it should not be within the power of the Government to determine the rules. It is like the situation in which everybody is running a 100 metre race, but the starting gun is held by the person in charge, and sometimes he decides to shoot some of the runners instead of just starting the race.
I agree that constituents reach the point at which they feel that the Government need to change, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is often in part because constituents are desperate for the Prime Minister of the day to announce a general election? Having such certainty to a reasonable extent will therefore obviate the need for constituents to wonder, "When is the election going to happen? When is the date? It can't happen soon enough." That certainty will surely improve the situation.
Yes, of course. The hon. Lady is right in the sense that constituents will not have to worry about the date of the election. In fact, newspapers and the BBC will have to employ considerably fewer journalists, because they will know the date of the general election and actually have to obsess about something else. However, the past 50 years have shown that, for the most part, once a Parliament has run for more than four years, either the Parliament itself is so fed up with the Prime Minister that it chooses to change the Prime Minister before holding a subsequent general election, or the country is becoming pretty fed up.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, really, this is not a fixed-term Parliament Bill at all? I mean not to criticise but to ask him a question, because, contrary to what he says, the Government do not make all the rules, the House of Commons does. If the House decided to go for a confidence motion because it happened to be fed up with the Government in question, as it did over Maastricht, we could end up with the situation in which the Government lost control. Then there would be a general election, and there would be no fixed term at all.
That is right, but that is a point in relation to clause 2 and at the moment we are dealing with clause 1. [ Interruption. ] At the moment we are talking about clause 1. In fact, the Bill is not really a fixed-term Parliaments Bill, because it does not determine how many days it should sit within those five years; it is a fixed-term elections Bill: it determines when elections shall be. There are things that we need to change in relation to Prorogation and so on, and we shall come on to that at another point in the debate, but, for the most part in this country, after four years and often before, the mandate on which the Government were elected becomes pretty thin, and they start doing things-sometimes pretty unpopular things-that were not clearly outlined in their manifesto. The party or parties might have made all sorts of commitments before they went into government, but events come along or the Government suddenly discover things that mean they have to break those manifesto promises or commitments, and the longer that a Government go on after four years, if they do so, the more likely they are to undermine respect for Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman, in his outrage, is almost saying that we are attempting to increase the length of a Parliament, but we could go to May 2015 as things stand in statute today. That does not involve extending the length of this Parliament. His other point is that Parliaments can run out of steam over five years, but that has been the problem of previous Governments, because they have governed in the short term, rather than for the long term and for the good of the country.
That is where there is a need for a balancing act, and that is why I do not support a three-year Parliament, which my hon. Friend Austin Mitchell advocates, or a five-year Parliament. I support a four-year Parliament, which in most constitutions throughout the world seems to be the period at which people have arrived. The Government would have at least three good Sessions in which they could advance their legislative cause, and if they wanted to do difficult things in the first and second years but retain their ability to recover their position in time for an election after four years, they would be able to do so.
One of the other things that happens in government itself is that, after four years, a lot of people become pretty tired. That was certainly true in the previous Parliament, in John Major's Government and in Baroness Thatcher's Government, and, because of that concatenation of tired people, many more ex-Ministers no longer have an investment in the future and do not intend to stand at the next general election, so in practice attendance in the House is much lower during the last year of a five-year Parliament than in the preceding years.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way, and he is making an engaging argument on a threadbare premise, if I may say so. Is not his argument essentially weakened by the fact that there is a mechanism to deal with an atypical event? I refer him to the controversy of 1979 over the Scotland Act 1978. That Parliament had been going for four years, and there was a vote of confidence on
I have to presume, as does the House, that the Government will go through with all the various provisions that they have laid down in the Bill, and in clause 2 there are two provisions for an early general election: the first determines what happens if there is a motion of no confidence, although it does not say what such a motion is; and the second relates to a motion for an early general election, although it does not say whether such a motion would name the precise date of that election. The Government presume that we will need a two-thirds majority in the House to achieve an early poll, so on the Government's argument-and, if the hon. Gentleman is going to support the Bill as it is, on his argument therefore-the presupposition is that there will not be many early general elections. Indeed, the Bill, by trying to make it almost impossible to have an early general election, is much tougher than the vast majority of other constitutions that I have looked at throughout the world. That is another reason why four years is better than five. In fact, the hon. Gentleman has helped me to make part of my argument.
In relation to the intervention by Alec Shelbrooke, I believe that in practice the Bill will lengthen the Parliaments of this country. Since 1832 there have been 45 general elections: the average peacetime length has been three years and eight months, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr said; even including the lengthy wartime Parliaments of the first and second world wars, the average has been only four years; and, during the period when the maximum allowable duration under the Septennial Act was seven years, from 1832 to 1911, the average was three years and 10 months. In practice, by fixing elections as "every five years", we will lengthen Parliaments and ensure less frequent general elections.
While we are discussing historical events, will the hon. Gentleman concede that some of those shortened Parliaments occurred because of the practice, which no longer exists, that when a monarch died, Parliament was dissolved?
In fact, looking through the list, that applies to remarkably few of them. It is absolutely true that there used to be the provision that there should be a general election on the demise of the monarch. That has not pertained for quite some time, however, and it certainly does not apply to any of the general elections of the 20th century.
It is false to say, as the hon. Gentleman and many of his hon. Friends have said, that the aim of this Bill is to entrench the power of the Government. If the Government wish to remain in office until 2015, they need do absolutely nothing, as they already have that within their power. Does not some of the weariness in Government to which he referred-a salient point-come from endless speculation about the date of the election, as in the previous Parliament, dating from 2007 when Mr Brown ascended to the prime ministership? [ Interruption. ] I am sorry for mispronouncing Kirkcaldy. If we know that there will be a fixed date for the general election, will not that remove the endless speculation that leads to weariness in Government?
Since the hon. Lady represents Corby, she should at least be able to pronounce the names of the Scottish parliamentary constituencies, as most of her constituents are Scottish. It is a great delight to see her joining us in the debate-we have missed her for most of it thus far.
I apologise if the hon. Lady has been there and I have not happened to notice her-she usually sits closer to the Front Benches.
The hon. Lady's point is wrong. The main reason for large elements of the Bill, particularly in relation to when an earlier general election can be called, is the desire to keep the coalition together. That is why we had the options for 55% majorities, as originally proposed, and then 66%. It is the superglue element of the legislation, which is there wholly for cynical purposes to try to keep the coalition together. Otherwise, I suspect that there might be a point at which the leader of the hon. Lady's party might want to cut and run and get rid of her unpopular lightning conductor of a Deputy Prime Minister.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not a fixed-term Parliaments Bill that will entrench anything in the system, but rather a "fix for this Parliament" Bill that merely represents the expedient and the ephemeral embracing each other to cope with the unexpected?
I want to talk about the hon. Gentleman's statistics. Looking back at the previous century, we had two elections in 1910, elections in 1923, 1924, 1951, 1959, 1964 and 1966, and two elections in 1974. He cannot give us an argument based on an average. He needs to highlight the Parliaments that really mattered, most of which were Conservative ones, as opposed to trying to massage his argument by bringing in Parliaments of a few months or a bit more. Funnily enough- [ Interruption. ] I was about to finish.
Funnily enough, of course I can advance an argument that is based on the average length of Parliaments, because the practical experience of voters over the past two centuries is that Parliaments have not gone on for more than four years. Therefore, if we are going to fix it for the future that they will always go on for five years, the hon. Gentleman and those who wish to take the Bill forward without amendment intend to extend Parliaments and provide for fewer general elections-that is just a fact.
Only four Parliaments since 1945 have lasted roughly five years. In three cases, a change of Prime Minister had intervened in the meantime: the Parliaments from
You are telling me to deal with one Parliament at a time, Ms Primarolo, and I rather agree.
I have to say that I probably agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, that would require treaty change, and I do not know whether we would then end up with a referendum, which would be very difficult for the Government.
Indeed. My right hon. Friend makes a very good point; she is right. I think that that Parliament ran for four years and seven months.
The second reason I think that five years is too long and four years would be better is that five years is longer, in practice, than applies virtually everywhere else, certainly within the European Union. Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Spain all have, for their lower Houses, fixed or maximum Parliament lengths of four years.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sitting there in his rotund way- [ Interruption ] I am sorry, orotund way-and providing me with the suggestion that I might refer to France. He is absolutely right, and I will indeed come to France. He might also have mentioned, orotundly, that Italy, Austria, Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg have provisions for five years. It is worth pointing out that in Italy there have been 17 elections for its Camera dei Deputati since 1945, and only twice in that time has the Parliament run for the full five years.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might take on board the fact that the systems of all the other countries in Europe that he has rightly cited are based on written constitutions. Does he accept that the virtue of the British system is its flexibility? Moreover, there is the example of
The hon. Gentleman is, in effect, making an argument against the whole of the Bill, because he is basically saying that we should not have fixed-term Parliaments. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry-he is chuntering so I cannot quite hear what he is saying. However, I disagree with him. My argument is that if we are going to have fixed-term Parliaments, they should not be of five years but of four years, partly because otherwise we will end up having the longest-running Parliaments in the European Union.
In Italy, very few Parliaments have gone on for five years because the President has the power to suspend the Parliament early. In Austria, there have been even more general elections-20-although that country has had a fixed five-year term since the war. Malta has had 16 elections since the war, and only since 1998 has it stuck to the five-year period. Cyprus has had regular changes to its constitution for a whole series of different reasons, not least in relation to Turkey. Only Luxembourg has a fixed five-year term that it has stuck to since 1974. In all these cases-I thought that this is the point that Mr Cash was going to make-the elections are held on the basis of a system of proportional representation, where there is an expectation that Parliaments might fall rather more frequently because elections do not tend to bring in one party with an absolute majority of seats in the relevant House.
As interesting as the examples from Europe are, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the countries that share our monarch and have exactly the same problems with prerogative powers and so on provide a better example of where we should be heading?
I will come on to them, and indeed they add to my argument, but I just wish to finish with France, for the further satisfaction and delight of Alec Shelbrooke. As I am sure he is aware, there have been 18 general elections to the Assemblée Nationale since 1945, which in large measure is because the President has the power to suspend the Parliament early if he wants to, and has frequently done so since 1945. The only restriction is that he cannot do that if he has already done so in the past year. In effect, therefore, there is not a fixed five-year term but a maximum five-year term, and elections have been held in October, November, March and June. In fact, the number of full five-year terms has been low. Again, that makes my point that a fixed five-year term for the British Parliament will mean that we have the longest Parliaments and the least frequent general elections of any country in the European Union.
As Andrew Percy said, it is not just the situation in the European Union that should matter. Five years is longer than in any of the other Westminster democracies as well. As he and others have said, New Zealand and Australia have three-year terms. They are not actually fixed terms in either case, they are maximum three-year terms, and I know that plenty of people there would like to be able to change to a four-year term because they think that three years is too short a time. In practice, three years ends up being a fixed term, because who would want to have elections more frequently than that? He is also right about Canada, where there is a four-year term.
However, there are some exceptions. I thought that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell would leap up and ask, "What about India?" The Lok Sabha, whose Members are elected in a similar way to ours in the sense that there are single-member constituencies, is elected for a maximum of five years. However, leaving aside the suspension of elections during the state of emergency from 1975 to 1977, there have been Parliaments of one, two, three or four years on several occasions since 1952. In practice, because it is quite easy to hold early general elections in India, it does not feel as though there is a fixed term of five years. Again, we will be going longer than most.
In South Africa, the National Assembly has supposedly been elected for five years ever since independence, but every term between 1966 and 1989 lasted four years or less-some might say "fewer", but it depends on how one looks at it.
Unless the hon. Gentleman is going to support us on amendments to clause 2-I look forward to his arguments, because we will have to ensure that he is consistent-he must accept that the Bill provides tough measures to ensure that the calling of an early general election will be pretty difficult, if not virtually impossible, given the parliamentary system.
To continue with Parliaments in the Westminster-style democracies, Papua New Guinea has consistently had fixed-term elections every five years since 1972, but it has more than 20 political parties, and only one party in the Papua New Guinean Parliament has more than eight members out of the 109. Again, that is a very different situation.
I therefore point out to Members that since the 1970s the only two places that have stuck to five year Parliaments, which are what the Bill is intended to give us on a permanent basis, are Papua New Guinea and Luxembourg. I just do not think that they provide an appropriate model. Even in the Dáil, which obviously has a five-year term and has done since 1923, the average term has been three years and three months. I argue that the Government are trying to extend the practical length of Parliaments, which is inappropriate.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr referred to Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh elections. His amendment 11 refers to the elections in 2015. I do not know whether the Government want to have a lot of elections on the same day, or whether they want to try to separate elections out consistently. In the USA, as several hon. Members have said, there is a deliberate constitutional construction to ensure that a lot of elections happen at the same time on the same day, on a two-yearly cycle. That is not the model that we have tended to adopt in the UK, although we have ended up with local elections, and now the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections, happening on the first Thursday in May.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that different constituencies and different electoral systems will be used on the same day, and he was absolutely right. If the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill goes through the House of Lords unchanged, we will not have parliamentary constituencies here that match the Welsh Assembly constituencies. They already do not match in Scotland, and on top of that there are regional elections to provide the top-up seats in Wales and Scotland. We will end up with a dog's breakfast. It will be difficult for voters to understand precisely whom they are voting for, difficult to conduct the counts for the different elections and difficult for broadcasters to know how to ensure that they give equal balance to the various people standing in elections.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept that the situation he describes is not solely a result of this Bill, and that it was bound to happen anyway in 2015, when it is likely the general election would have been? As he says, there are already different boundaries in Scotland. It is right that we find some way of enabling the devolved legislatures to move their elections if they wish, but the situation is not just the result of this Bill.
No, no, no, the hon. Lady is wrong. She has a much easier way to solve all this-she can vote with us tonight. She only has to do so twice, first to ensure that the 2015 election is brought forward to 2014 and then to ensure that elections are every four years, not every five. She has to do both, she cannot just do one, because otherwise we would still end up with elections happening at the same time every 20 years.
I wonder whether we can get down to the brass tacks of this. In 2007, some 140,000 ballots in Scotland were void, nullified and not counted. People were disfranchised because there were two elections of different sorts on the same day. This matter is not ethereal, it is about practical politics and the enfranchisement of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When that point was made earlier in the debate some people said it was all about how the ballot papers were presented, and undoubtedly that was part of the problem. However, the point is that in Wales, an Assembly election feels like a general election. It will feel like a general election next May. Elections to the Scottish Parliament feel like a general election in Scotland, and I am sure the situation is somewhat similar in Northern Ireland. If they coincide with the UK elections every 20 years, it will be a bit of a muddle and voters will be confused. This is not about our convenience, it is about the convenience of voters and the clarity of the mandate that is provided. Without a clear mandate, we end up without good politics and with people distrusting the political system.
I say in passing that another element of the Bill is that the Government intend to stick to a short election campaign, both in any early general election that might be held and in the specific 2015 election. That will not be the same campaign as for the local elections or for the Welsh or Scottish elections. That will provide another level of uncertainty, particularly for treasurers of local election campaigns. They may be the treasurer for their local constituency association or their local party, and they are already given a pretty tough job to do with stringent legal provisions. Often they are nervous about what that might mean for them and whether they will end up in prison. We should not make the situation even more complicated by firing the starting gun for expenses for the various elections on different days. In addition to that, by choosing May we will always hit the problem of Easter. In 2015, polling day will be on
Maundy Thursday used to be a day on which one did not have elections. It used to be provided as a bank holiday, but legislation in 1995 removed it from the list. None the less, it would be inappropriate to dissolve Parliament on Maundy Thursday in 2020. The bigger point is that we will constantly have the problem with the start date of the electoral campaign because Easter moves.
Both days provide a specific role for the monarch. The point that I am trying to make is that because Easter moves, the number of working days' measures that is allowed for in the Bill at the moment makes it more difficult to predetermine exactly how many days there will be. For the most part, it is inappropriate to have a general election across the passage of Easter; it makes it more difficult. I do not want to lay that down in legislation. I merely make the point.
The main point, however, is that it has always been the ambition of freedom that there should be frequent elections. There is a significant difference between having a fixed term and a maximum term for a Parliament. The Meeting of Parliament Act 1694-it used to be known as the Triennial Act 1694-stated:
"Whereas, by the ancient laws and statutes of this kingdom, frequent parliaments ought to be held; and whereas frequent and new parliaments tend very much to the happy union and good agreement of the king and people".
It then went on to make provision for three-year parliaments, which is what, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is advocating.
I fear that the argument of the Government-in particular the argument of the Deputy Prime Minister-that plenty of time is needed to do unpopular things is rather closer to the Septennial Act 1715. That said:
"And whereas it has been found by experience that the said clause"-- namely the one that provided for three-year Parliaments-
"hath proved very grievous and burthensome, by occasioning much greater and more continued expences in order to elections of members to serve in Parliament, and more violent and lasting heats and animosities among the subjects of this realm, than were ever known before the said clause was enacted; and the said provision, if it should continue, may probably at this juncture, when a restless and popish faction are designing and endeavouring to renew the rebellion within this kingdom, and an invasion from abroad, be destructive to the peace and security of the government."
In other words, as in 1715, the Government want to be able to remain longer in power because they think that it is better for the country. On the whole, we should presume that shorter Parliaments are better. It is no wonder that the Chartists campaigned for annual elections. The petition that was presented to this House on
In 1992, the Labour manifesto said:
"This general election was called only after months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy. No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above country as the Conservatives have done. Although an early election will sometimes be necessary, we will introduce as a general rule a fixed parliamentary term."
In 2002, Tony Wright, the former Member for Cannock Chase-he was previously the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee-brought in a ten-minute rule Bill, calling for fixed-term Parliaments. He pointedly said that the fixed term had to be four years rather than five years.
In 2007, another ten-minute rule Bill was brought forward in the name of David Howarth, a very fine man who was then the Liberal Democrat Member for Cambridge. He argued very forcefully, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, that there should be a fixed-term Parliament. The Liberal Democrats have long argued for fixed-term Parliaments, but fixed at four years and not five. Their policy paper 83 "For the People By the People"- [ Interruption.] I will not repeat what my right hon. Friend Sadiq Khan has just said. The policy paper, which was introduced to the autumn conference in 2007, set out the commitment to a written constitution, which included fixed parliamentary terms of four years. It stated:
"Liberal Democrats have long argued that parliaments should last for a fixed term of four years. In a reformed political system coalition government might be the norm and stability can only be encouraged by a system which does not allow for snap elections when political relationships suffer temporary disruption."
The best advocate of such legislation was Mr Heath. Indeed, he brought a Bill before Parliament. I have seen lots of photographs of him advocating a four-year fixed Parliament. As he is an honourable man who believes in consistency, I know that he will support us tonight in favour of a four-year rather than a five-year term.
Welcome to the Chair, Miss Begg. It is a delight to see you for the first time in the Chair in the full Chamber of the House. Let me repeat, there is no mandate for this provision. This provision is not the one that was in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto. It is not the provision that was in the Conservative party's manifesto, because the Conservative party said that it would introduce legislation to provide that if a party in Government changed its leader, and therefore the Prime Minister, there would be a general election within six months. That provision has completely disappeared, so there is no mandate for the precise nature of this Bill.
I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House and the Minister have persuaded themselves of their argument. They have scrunched up their eyes and desperately persuaded themselves that this Bill does not try to extend the length of Parliaments. They have screwed themselves to the sticking point, and they are determined to get it through. The honest truth, however, is that this is a wrong measure. It is anti-democratic. It will mean that general elections happen less frequently. This House should support the amendments that have been tabled by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and all the other amendments that call for four-year Parliaments rather than five-year Parliaments and the next general election in May 2014 and not 2015.
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg.
In the unavoidable absence of Mr Allen, I should like to put before the House amendment 32, which has been tabled by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is chairman. I and other hon. Members here present are also members. Not all members of the Select Committee have put their names to this amendment, and I do not wish to press it to a Division. None the less, I want to put it before the House on behalf of the Select Committee because it was part of our process of pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. In the Select Committee's words, the House should consider whether
"a Parliament following an early general election should last for only as long as the remainder of the term of the previous Parliament, and whether such a provision would make a super-majority for a dissolution unnecessary?"
Three eminent academics gave evidence to the Select Committee. Professor Robert Blackburn of King's college, London, wrote that the amendment would help to
"ensure a governing majority does not abuse its ability to push through an early election resolution for no good reason other than being a favourable time to itself to go to the polls".
"a strong disincentive to a government inclined to call an early election" as well as
"a disincentive to opposition parties tempted to force a mid term dissolution".
The proposal is also supported by Professor Hazell's colleague, Professor Dawn Oliver, for similar reasons.
There are at least three further arguments in support of amendment 32. First, it would provide a genuine fixed term, making the cycle of ordinary general elections predictable long into the future, or at least until the law is changed. Secondly, it would be in keeping with the statutory arrangements for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Thirdly, it would prevent the cycle of parliamentary constituency boundary reviews -as proposed by the Government in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-from decoupling from regular general elections. That decoupling would occur under the Government's proposals if an early general election were held. Will the Minister consider that in respect of the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as well as in respect of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. It will be difficult for people to know on what basis elections are held if we do not accept amendment 32 or an amendment to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to ensure that boundary commissions report 18 months or so before the date of an election.
Indeed. The hon. Gentleman and I disagree profusely on the boundary commission issues that are currently being debated in Parliament, but we agree that it is essential that regular boundary reviews coincide with parliamentary terms. I expect that the Minister will also agree with that.
As I have often said when speaking to amendments that have arisen from the pre-legislative scrutiny undertaken by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, amendment 32 is genuinely meant to be helpful to Ministers, and to forewarn them. If there are early elections, boundary commission reviews will be out of step. Having said that, this is a purely practical matter. I am sure that the Minister, once he has given it about two or three minutes' thought, will have a perfectly good response. It is right that this Committee considers such points, because that is the purpose and meaning of pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Government put their argument against the amendment in their response to the Select Committee's report. They say that
"a Government could be returned following an early general election with a large majority, in which case it would make little sense to ask the voters to return to the polls in as little as a few months."
That is a perfectly good point and I cannot argue with it. They also argue:
"The people expect that when they go to the polls, they are being asked to elect a Government which will last for a full term with a full programme."
If the Bill passes, the people will indeed expect that. Those points answer some of the points that the Select Committee made in its pre-legislative scrutiny, but not all.
As I said, not all members of the Select Committee support amendment 32, and I do not wish to press it to a Division. I am speaking to it on behalf of the Select Committee simply so that this Committee has an opportunity to consider the balance of the arguments. I am sure that the Minister will give very good reasons why he does not wish to accept the amendment, but I hope he will reassure us that the Government have considered the points made-perfectly properly-by the Select Committee.
The hon. Lady referred to the evidence given by Professor Hazell, so I am sure that she would also want to point out that he said that fixed terms should be for four and not five years. Does she remember
"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?"-[ Hansard, 16 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1704.]
I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises that and grateful to him. I very well remember
I am consistent on that point as in all other aspects of my political philosophy. In fact, the debate on
I have spoken to amendment 32 on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Having performed my duty in that respect, I am now free, and I should like to speak to amendment 11 on my own behalf, and not on behalf of that Committee or anyone else. There are two issues to consider when it comes to the length of Parliaments: first, the constitutional principle; and secondly, the prevailing political situation. Let us be honest: that is the crux of the matter.
On the constitutional principle, there is nothing strange, new or innovative about a five-year parliamentary term. Jonathan Reynolds asked from where the Government have plucked the idea of five-year terms. The fact is that the law permits five-year Parliaments, as it has for the past 99 years. The idea has not been plucked from nowhere-it is quite normal.
Does the hon. Lady not recognise that the normal practice has been four-year terms? In fact, the average length is slightly less than four years. If we are to extend that period, we should at the very least be given an argument in favour of it, but such an argument has not so far been forthcoming.
No. With respect, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The Bill is not about extending Parliament. Four year Parliaments are not normal. Let us be realistic and honest about that, in political terms. We have had four-year Parliaments because they have suited Prime Ministers who believed that they had a better chance of securing a majority in the country after four years than if they went on for another year. The current system gives enormous power to Prime Ministers, and quite rightly so. There must be some power of incumbency, which is what the power to such decisions is. There is no norm of four-year Parliaments, and averages are irrelevant-they are just arithmetic.
The hon. Lady is talking about what is normal. I venture to say that it has not been normal in the British system, since 1832, to have a five-year Parliament. There have been a few, but there have been very few. It has been more normal to have four-year Parliaments.
I have just explained why. I would add that 1832 is not relevant, but 1911 is. We are looking at the last 100 years, during which time there have been several five-year Parliaments.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is very familiar with these figures, but 10 of the past 17 Parliaments lasted longer than four years, and six of those 10 lasted longer than four and a half years. That probably supports her argument that many Parliaments run for much longer than four years.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for those statistics. He is absolutely correct, and talking about averages is neither here nor there. We should be looking at the number of Parliaments that have run for five years, almost five years or very much less. We cannot count the war years, and it is irrelevant to count unusual times. There is no norm of four-year Parliaments. The Bill does not extend anything; it merely enshrines the current situation.
On UK norms, is it not true that where institutions are fixed, whether in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, or in local authorities and town, community and parish councils, the norm is four years? The norm in the UK is four years, and that is the whole point of the amendment.
The norm for district, county and parish councils is four years, but they are not Parliament. We are talking about Parliament, the duties undertaken by which are different and have a different time span from those undertaken by local authorities.
Does the hon. Lady accept, therefore, that the only other Parliament in the United Kingdom has a four-year term, and that is the Scottish Parliament, for which, I regret, she did not vote in 1997?
No I did not, but I would argue with the hon. Gentleman that, if he seeks consistency, which would not be unreasonable, the Scottish Parliament should change to five years. There is no problem with that.
The point made by Jonathan Edwards about comparisons with local authorities is interesting but irrelevant, because we are talking about Parliament, the work of which has a long time lag.
Because it takes a long time to turn the economy round. We are looking now at the horrific mess that the last Government, in the last five-year Parliament, left behind.
The hon. Gentleman can wave it away, but he cannot change the fact that our country's economic situation is dire, and that is because of what his Government did in their last five-year Parliament. I wish it had not lasted five years, but that is another point-[Hon. Members: "Ah!] Yes, but when I say that, I say it purely out of party political prejudice, and other people in the Chamber ought to admit the same when they are looking for a general election to be sooner, rather than later. It is not constitutional principle, but party political prejudice.
Is it not important that we focus on the people we serve, rather than on structures, time periods and so on, and is it not important that we renew our mandate regularly? If the norm is for the renewal of a mandate after four years for local elections, parliamentary elections in Scotland and Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland, does it not make sense to recognise that renewal on a four-year basis is reasonable, especially given that neither of the Government parties took this to the British people in the general election? We have to recognise the norm, by which I mean the average.
I have answered the point about local authorities. We are not a local authority; we are the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Making that comparison completely negates the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, he said one thing that was correct: yes, we should be mindful of those whom we serve. We serve them better by producing stable Government, and that is what the Bill will help to do. The fact is that no Parliament can bind its successor.
I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend, because he is absolutely correct. The argument is totally erroneous. If Opposition Members wish to turn this Parliament into the equivalent of a district council, I for one will oppose them all the way. It is an irrelevant argument. The Bill is a statement of intent and of good management by the Prime Minister, who could, as other Members have said, say nothing now, bring forward no legislation, but intend in his own mind to call the next general election in May 2015, and under the current system that would be entirely up to him.
I have dealt now with the constitutional principle. There is no such principle preventing a fixed-term Parliament of five years, and there is no principle that says that a Parliament of the United Kingdom should be anything other than five years-no principle, no precedent. On the second part of my consideration-the reflection of the current political situation-I noticed the other day that I have an old fridge magnet, purchased some time ago in that illustrious place, the House of Commons souvenir shop. It has on it a pithy saying from that brilliant political thinker, Spike Milligan-
It does not say that. It says: "One day the Don't knows will get in, and then where will we be?" [Hon. Members: "They did."] Precisely my point! I used to laugh at that fridge magnet and think that Spike Milligan was funny, but now I am sorry to say his prophecy was correct. Where would we be, if the electorate decided, "Don't know"? We would be where we are now. We need a coalition, because that is what the electorate, in Spike Milligan fashion, decided. We have to have a coalition because it is necessary for stability, and that stability is necessary to resolve the economic situation and put this country back on its feet after 13 years of misrule by Labour Governments.
"The long title of this Bill should be 'A Bill to ensure that the inherent contradictions in the coalition Government are suppressed for a full five years; to make sure that neither party can double cross the other; and for connected purposes.'"-[ Hansard, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 697.]
Well, she was absolutely right: that is not cynical; it is practical. We need to have stability. We therefore need to have a stable coalition, and if having fixed-term Parliaments is part of that, we need to have fixed-term Parliaments. The Government are right to state that such a Parliament should last for five years, because in order to bring about the stability that this country needs, it needs to have the same Government continuing with the same coherent, stable economic and social principles in the long term, rather than for short-term political expediency. That is why five years is so important.
I think I must have wandered over to the Government Benches and left my notes for my speech there, because the hon. Lady seems to be reading them out. I can see why it might be practical to say that the next general election should be on
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman cannot see that, but I have said that I can see it. It is a perfectly proper constitutional principle that a Parliament should sit for five years. Now I am putting the practical side of the argument, which is that in the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves-as a result of the mismanagement of our country's economy and social policy for 13 years by a bad, Labour Government, who did the people of the United Kingdom no favours whatever-it will take more than just two or three years to put this country back on its feet. Therefore, we should have a five-year term. It is what the people of our country need; it is what we as parliamentarians have a duty, in the name of stability, to give the people.
Thank you for calling me, Miss Begg. It is a great pleasure to see you in your place today.
I congratulate Mrs Laing on her dynamic speech. She has always been a participant in constitutional debates. We have often not seen eye to eye, and, frankly, I am not sure that we are going to change that this evening. However, she spoke with her usual vigour, vim and-in her way-logic. For those who do not know, she and I have always had an issue with some Members of this House who could never pronounce her name properly-that is, as we pronounce it in Scotland. I know that I am not allowed to mention names, but I am sure that she knows what I am talking about. [Hon. Members: "Go on!"] In Scotland, we would pronounce the hon. Lady's name "Lang". I will leave hon. Members to work out the difference, because, without usurping the Chair, Miss Begg, we would normally- [ Interruption. ] No, sorry, we would say "Layng", not "Lang". After 13 years down here, I have almost gone native.
I would like first to comment on one or two other previous speeches in this debate. There have been some powerful contributions to this debate. On the principle of the four-year term, although I did not agree with the analysis on three years put forward by my hon. Friend Austin Mitchell, he and Mr Shepherd made telling statements about re-energising our democracy at regular intervals. Frankly, it is arrogant of us in this House to assume that we should not go out there and re-energise our democracy at reasonable times. I am not convinced that five years is the right period to re-energise our democracy. Indeed, the dynamic of the British political infrastructure is built around four-year terms. The hon. Member for Epping Forest assumed that somehow Parliament was in a different position from the other elements of our democratic infrastructure, but I do not think that we are, in that they are underpinned by the same principle that if someone is elected by the people, then every so often, after a reasonable interlude, they should have to regain that mandate.
As an aside, the hon. Member for Epping Forest is a fantastic successor to Sir Patrick Cormack-I hope that she will take that as a compliment-in that she says the word "Parliament" with such gusto and conviction. Her articulation-I think that is the word-of the word "Parliament" brought back fond memories of Sir Patrick.
There is a dynamic in the British parliamentary system. There is also a logic to the four-year term, which has been built up over many years, yet the one thing that has been missing from the Government's case in proposing five years is logic. There is absolutely no logic to their case, although the hon. Lady's honesty perhaps got us closer than anybody else on the Government Benches was prepared to admit. This is not about logic or principle; this is about sheer political expediency. The current Government tell us that their activities in managing the economy will deal with the deficit in four years, so why are they afraid to go back to the electorate in four years? Why do they need to extend this Parliament for an extra year? Some elements of the coalition Government are in a lifeboat, waiting for the general election of 2015-a political equivalent of the Carpathia-to come by and lift them out of the seas in which they find themselves. That is the only reason for proposing a five-year term.
It is preposterous to introduce a five-year element into a well established cycle of elections every four years. It is almost like the Olympics: if we can divide the year by two, then it should be an election year. Every other democracy that we have highlighted today has gone down the road of four years-in the case of the American Senate, the division is by two. We have a well established political infrastructure in this country.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for shorter periods between general elections, but when it comes to a coalition, is there not an even stronger democratic argument for shorter periods? By necessity, the policies of a coalition will have been opaque to the electorate at the last general election. Therefore, a coalition Government should go back to the people more often.
I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. We now have a different kind of Government. Had the numbers been slightly different, we might have been in a similar position-that is, in a coalition. However, I cannot imagine that one of our first Bills would have been to extend the life of that Parliament and put a statutory limit-not a flexible limit-on the length of our term, although some of my colleagues have asked why we did not think of the idea first, when we had a majority of 164 in 1997. Hindsight is a great thing.
As for the length of Parliaments, I want to offer my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda an apology, because he was right when he said that there were three Parliaments that ran in excess of five years. There were three others-I have just added up the years; I did not have the benefit of the chart-that effectively ran for five years. However, I hope that he will accept that, taken together, it has been unusual to go beyond four years.
There has been a strong element of honesty-certainly from this side of the Committee-about what happens in the fifth year of a Government. We have to be realistic about the dynamism and energy of a Government in their fifth year. I remember coming into the House in 1997 and hearing then Opposition Members-some of whom are now members of the Government-say that the fifth year of any Parliament is often the one in which the Government are tired and running out of steam. You might remember hearing similar comments, Miss Begg. I do not think that creating fixed Parliaments of five years will change that dynamic of politics. Four years is the time it takes a Government to put a programme in place and to deal with the major issues that it came to power to deal with.
Another element, which I find distasteful, is that this Government are seeking to extend their own life. I would have more respect for this legislation if it extended the life of the next Parliament. At no time did either of the political parties that now form the Government say that they would extend the life of this Government by an extra year.
Opposition Members return again and again to the same inexplicable argument. Will the right hon. Lady explain how the Government are seeking to extend the life of this Parliament when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may call an election on the very last day of the five years should he choose to do so without introducing any legislation whatever?
There is a distinct difference between the flexibility in the constitution now, and a law that says that this Parliament cannot, without jumping over various hurdles and achieving various percentages, call a general election before the end of that statutory period. That is the fundamental divide in the Committee.
I return to the practical point of whether we should have general elections at the same time as other elements of our democratic society have their elections. The integrity of other elements of our democratic infrastructure should be protected. Frankly, the Westminster attitude that everyone else should change is not compelling, and is insulting to the tens of thousands of people who are involved in all sorts of political activity at local government level, and indeed at Assembly and parliamentary level. This Parliament established the Assemblies and devolved Parliament. We should keep faith with them and recognise that they have the right to pursue their own democratic mandate without our overlaying our election by statute and no longer as a matter of flexibility or choice.
Holding those elections on the same day will cause major difficulties, even if that occurs every so many years. We are discussing different systems for not just two of those elements, but for three or four. We could have the alternative vote system if in the referendum, whenever it is held, the people accept it for this Parliament. We have first past the post for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and over and above that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, a third and yet another system is the regional list vote. The issue is not that the people of the various countries of the United Kingdom may be unable to discern the different political arguments that might be made; complexity will be added to our democracy when we want to encourage more people to be involved in democracy. We are in danger of putting them off by saying, "This is how you must vote in this election, this is the way on that election, and this is the way on the second vote."
On a practical point, we may pass legislation in the House, but it has to be implemented. Let us imagine the difficulty that returning officers will face in the first and subsequent elections when they conflict with those elements of our electoral system. We are asking returning officers and all the staff who make sure that our democracy works to do almost the impossible. Although there have been debates on why 140,000 ballot papers were spoiled at the last Scottish Parliament elections, it is fair to say that the response from returning officers and their staff was that holding different elections on the same day with complex voting systems did not help matters, albeit that there were issues with the ballot paper.
What worries me particularly about the how the legislation has been introduced is that when challenged the Deputy Prime Minister's answer was that the date of the other elections should be changed. That is arrogant, and underpins the content of the Bill and the speed with which it is being steamrollered through the House and the other place. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills argued powerfully about constitutional change, and he will recognise that if such change has to happen, it should do so with consensus throughout the House. Constitutional change should happen because all political parties recognise the need for it. What we have here is a unilateral decision by a coalition Government who did not highlight five-year terms in their manifestos.
Trust the Liberals to get involved in semantics. Everyone else knew what I was talking about.
I suggest to the Minister that there is general good will in the House for fixed-term Parliaments, fixed-term elections, or whatever phraseology we want to use to describe what we all know we are talking about. There is consensus on that principle, but the Government must decide whether they will listen to the voice not just of political opponents, but of people who want that constitutional change. It is not a long way to travel to recognise major constitutional and practical problems with the date that they have chosen, and with the five-year term in principle. A coalition is also about listening to people outside the coalition, and I hope that the Government will yet come forward with a change to the Bill so that the House can agree on fixed-term elections in a way that allows us all to move forward without making it an issue of acrimony between parties.
I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. As I sat here this afternoon and this evening, I saw my hon. Friend Mark Durkan, my right hon. Friend Sadiq Khan, my hon. Friend Chris Bryant and hon. Members on the Government Benches, and I had a feeling of déjà vu. I felt that we had been here quite recently, and it occurred to me that that was so.
We had a debate in Committee just three weeks ago- [ Interruption. ] As the hon. Member for Foyle said, it was to discuss a Bill with a different title, but one that also sought to change our parliamentary system. There are perhaps only two reasons why the Government did not amalgamate them in a single Bill. First, this is a back-of-a-fag-packet rushed job that they have pulled together, but they could not get their civil servants to work fast enough for the Deputy Prime Minister. I note that he is not here tonight, and I can only assume that after his 70-minute contribution to our eight hours of debate on the other Bill he is exhausted. I am sure that Opposition Members wish him all the best in his recovery from that exhaustion. The second reason could be that the Minister so enjoys spending time on Bills that he has been bouncing around all week in eager anticipation of listening to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda giving him an interesting lecture on constitutional history. Without further ado, I will indulge not that fetish, but that fantasy.
I was lucky enough to go on the visit by the all-party British-American parliamentary group to the United States some two months ago, and spent a lot of time studying the US constitution, and especially its constitutional convention, which is particularly apt given the comments by Mr Shepherd about interesting parallels between our parliamentary system and that of our colonial cousins across the water. I have to confess to being something of an anorak in these matters. In fact, I have been described as the Leonard to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda's Sheldon when it comes to the constitutional process.
I should like to recommend to the Committee an excellent book by Professor Robert Beeman called "Plain, Honest Men: the making of the American constitution", which I would be happy to lend to the Minister and to the Deputy Leader of the House if they would like to study it. They might be interested to know that when the Americans came to draw up their constitution and were considering the lengths of terms of office and the roles of the upper and lower Houses and of the Executive, they held a four-month constitutional convention in 1789. They brought together some of the great minds of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and one James Wilson, who was a native of Fife and educated at St Andrew's university, and who emigrated to the colonies in the 1750s. They spent four months debating those matters, and only at the end of that time, after a proper detailed debate, did they deign to bring forward detailed proposals for their terms of office, fixed terms and so on.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not forget one of the very important constituent parts of that whole debate-namely, the federalist papers. They laid out the arguments for the wider public, which were fiercely debated with proposition and counter-proposition. That was a formidable ingredient that involved an awful lot of people.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I apologise for not having touched on it. He is entirely right to say that the work of the likes of Madison and Hamilton was crucial, but that there was also a great debate. They did not try to rush their proposal through.
We are certainly being educated here tonight. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Philadelphia convention was conducted on the basis of a tabula rasa, and that those people were starting from a base point? What we see here before us today is a foul, expedient hotch-potch of crisis and chaos spatchcocked together to try to allow the coalition to limp on into the future. To compare it to the great towering genius of Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison is to do them a disservice and to give the present coalition Government rather too much credit.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. When I look at those on the Government Front Bench, however, I see some nuggets of hope and principle, and I am sure they will listen carefully to the points that we are making.
The Minister might be interested to know that, when the Americans were considering term lengths for their parliamentarians and for the presidency, they originally considered a three-year term for the House of Representatives and a seven-year term for the presidency and the Senate. Before the Minister gets too excited about the idea of a seven-year term, however, I should tell him that they also considered making it for one term only. Indeed, they argued that the Executive branch should not sully itself by seeking re-election. I suspect that he would be less keen on that principle. Slowly, however, over that summer, they moved towards a settled will among the 13 colonies. In fact, I should say 12 colonies because, as hon. Members will know, Rhode Island did not attend any part of the convention. They settled on a system of two-year terms for the House of Representatives, six-year terms for the Senate and four-year terms for the presidency. However, the elections for the United States Senate have always been staggered-a point that I regret the Government have not taken on board-so that each voter in every state has the opportunity to cast their verdict on the Senate no more than four years apart. That point seems to have passed by some of those on the Government Benches.
Of course, there are reasons closer to home why we might wish to move to a fixed term of four years. I shall not repeat the points that were made earlier, but I should like to take the Scottish perspective for a moment. It is interesting that the Gould report-which the Deputy Prime Minister admitted on Third Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill he had not actually read; he had read a report of the report-made it absolutely clear that having multiple elections on the same day would inevitably lead to confusion. The Electoral Commission has also raised that matter, and the electoral administration officers for Scotland are deeply concerned about their ability to deal not only with the referendum and the Scottish Parliament elections being held on the same day in 2011 but with the general election and the Scottish elections in 2015.
There is also the important issue of the television debates. I should explain to those colleagues who have not had the pleasure of representing a constituency in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland that there is a real challenge involved. The main debates for the Westminster election in 2015 will be among the three party leaders, assuming that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have not merged into a single party for electoral purposes. However, in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections in that year, there will have to be TV debates within the nations and regions covering the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Democratic Unionist party and so on in Northern Ireland, the Scottish National party, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals in Scotland, and similar arrangements in Wales. That will become incredibly complicated and could be open to serious legal challenge if we hold the two elections on the same day. The SNP or Plaid could argue that, if the leader of the Labour party gets double the exposure, Labour's vote could go up. I suspect, however, that such exposure for the Deputy Prime Minister would only drive down even further the Liberal Democrat share of the vote in Scotland and, probably, in Wales.
There are also some serious logistical problems that need to be considered. My hon. Friend Ian Murray stole my line about having different polling stations for the Scottish parliamentary election and the Westminster election. I am sure that that such a situation could also be true for Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is actually a Member at the heart of the Government who does not agree with holding elections on the same day. I accept that his Bill on the decoupling of the local government and Scottish Parliament elections was introduced when he was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, but it might be helpful if I quote the junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I understand that he has attended the debate today. He was referring to the local government and Scottish Parliament elections, but the principles apply across the board. He said:
"I have always held the view that separate elections for local government and the Scottish Parliament would allow for real local accountability by increasing the focus on the real issues of local government which are currently overshadowed by the policies of the Scottish Parliament."
There is no reason not to extend that logic to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. On page 7 of his consultation document, he went on to say:
"Supporters of combined elections argue that by keeping local government together with higher profile elections a higher turnout can be maintained. This is, however, only hiding the problem of a disengaged local electorate, not solving it. The real solution lies in local politicians that respond to local issues, delivering specific solutions to the specific problems in their community."
I am sure that the Minister will absolutely agree with his colleague.
I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that other Members wish to speak. I look forward to the Minister reflecting on the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and on the wisdom of our colonial cousins. I also look forward to him supporting our amendments.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Miss Begg. I want to focus on the practical issues, as we have heard quite a lot of constitutional theorising, and, indeed, a great deal of fascinating history. When I first saw these proposals, I assumed, perhaps rather naively, that the Government had simply made a big mistake, and that they had not realised that, as a result of going for five-year fixed-term Parliaments with immediate effect-that is, in relation to the length of this Parliament-the date of the general election would coincide with the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Welsh Assembly elections and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. I thought that once they realised that that was a problem they would rethink their proposition, if only in purely practical terms and even if there were a theoretical argument for five years being better than four-and I have certainly not heard one today-but they did not do so.
My hon. Friend Thomas Docherty said that he hoped that when the Minister summed up the debate-on Third Reading, of course, the debate may be summed up by the Deputy Prime Minister himself-he would take some of those issues on board, but I fear that, if the previous constitutional Bill is anything to go by, that will not happen. The Deputy Prime Minister could have written his summing-up speech for the Third Reading of that Bill before the debate had even started. Indeed, I believe that he had, given that so little reference was made to the hours spent in Committee and the different arguments that had been put at that stage. It seemed that none of those arguments had been listened to.
I appreciate that many Government Members have no experience of the practical issues that we have raised. There is, after all, only one Conservative Member of Parliament who represents a Scottish seat. There are Scots who represent other seats, but there is only one Conservative MP who does so, and as far as I am aware he has not been present much during our debates or contributed much to them. Some junior members of the coalition-the junior partners-represent Scottish seats, but they too have been fairly conspicuous by their absence for much of the debate. However, Mike Crockart has now arrived, and Jo Swinson was briefly present earlier.
I simply must intervene to defend the honour of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend David Mundell, who is indeed the only Conservative Member of Parliament in Scotland. He cannot take part in these debates because he is a Minister in a different Department, although he was here earlier, when the Committee was dealing with the important parts of the Bill that relate to Scotland. I cannot allow it to be on the record that he has not paid attention or that he has not taken part in these debates, given that he is not allowed to do so.
I accept the hon. Lady's point that the Minister cannot take part in the debate, but I have not observed a great deal of discussion in the wider press, here or in Scotland, to which he has contributed.
The point that I was making, however, is that many Government Members have no practical experience of the position that obtained in 2007. I think that Government Members are inclined to make light of it and to imagine that we are stirring up a storm in a teacup over something that did not really matter, but it was important. It was a bad day for democracy when so many things went wrong with that combined election. Yes, it did have something to do with the design of the forms; I am not going to say that it did not, for the design did not help. However, the real issue in that context, which was addressed after 2007, was the decoupling of the local government and Scottish Government elections, with an arrangement to ensure that that would not happen again. It seems odd to voters in Scotland, and certainly to political activists there, that we are not just returning to the position in which we found ourselves in 2007, but, I would argue, putting ourselves in a considerably worse position.
Although this will not simply be a matter of practicalities, I should like to draw attention to some of the practicalities of which Government Members may not be aware. The boundaries relating to the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster constituencies are now very different. They have moved apart because the number of Scottish constituencies represented here was reduced in 2005. The Scottish Parliament boundaries have been changed very recently. Their size has not been reduced and the numbers have not changed, but there has been a substantial redrawing which, in most cases, has moved them even further from the Westminster boundaries. There are some very strange boundaries, making it difficult for people to understand who represents them and what constituency they are in.
People who live in the southernmost part of the constituency of my hon. Friend Ian Murray for Westminster purposes will be in Edinburgh Eastern for the purposes of the Scottish parliamentary elections next year. Given that they live in the far south of Edinburgh, they find it quite difficult to fathom why they have effectively been transported to a different part of the city. That will cause not just a potential for electoral confusion, but serious practical problems relating to the organisation of the elections.
Even more important is the blurring and confusing of the real political differences that have emerged since devolution. I am sure that the same applies to Wales, although I probably do not know enough about its politics or history. No doubt my colleagues will rush to enlighten me. Our politics in Scotland, however, have developed very differently. Not many of the political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament take the lines adopted by the coalition Government here.
For instance, the coalition Government have decided that they want to stop funding the building of affordable housing through grants-I assure you that this point is relevant to the debate, Miss Begg-and instead to fund it by raising rents, which means that tenants will pay for the building of their new homes. I am absolutely positive that no party represented in the Scottish Parliament, even the Conservative party, will espouse such a position in Scotland through the Parliament. In the past-although the situation may change-all the parties in the Scottish Parliament have signed up to free personal care for the elderly. At that time a different view was taken at Westminster, and a different view was taken by my party and by others. However, although some might find it surprising, the Conservatives in Scotland have signed up to that policy in the past.
In a radio programme that I heard on Friday, a leading member of the Liberal Democrat party in the Scottish Parliament said that in no circumstances would the Liberal Democrats introduce tuition fees. Has my hon. Friend any idea how we could conduct a debate about tuition fees-given the position of one of the partners in the coalition Government, the Liberal Democrat party-while also trying to conduct a debate about funds for students in Scotland, with all that happening at the same time as the two elections?
I entirely agree. That is another illustration of where the difficulty lies. It is not that people are stupid. It is not that the voters cannot understand that there are two elections ongoing. It is that the issues will not be properly debated, and there will be confusion about what the various parties stand for. For example, Scottish Liberal Democrats may, as has been suggested, wish to campaign strongly about the way they think universities should be funded. As that is clearly different from the position taken by their leadership here at Westminster, they are going to find it much harder to get their point of view across.
I am surprised that the hon. Lady thinks this will cause confusion since Labour seemed to manage such a situation: they supported the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland as part of the coalition there while simultaneously opposing that for the rest of the United Kingdom from the Government Front Bench here in the last Parliament.
I was not suggesting that it is either confusing in general terms or wrong that parties in different parts of the United Kingdom should take different views. That has also happened in Wales, and it has happened on health issues and education issues. It is right that we should develop in that way; I think it is extremely healthy. It is a sign of the strength and success of devolution since 1999 that there can be such differences of opinion even within political parties that are very close and see themselves as part of the same party.
For the benefit of those Lib Dems who are only arriving now, so very late to the debate, may I ask my hon. Friend whether she agrees with the following point made tonight by the leader of Plaid Cymru and others-that confusion will be caused by having two elections on the same day, especially as they will be preceded by TV debates with on one night the party leader for the UK saying that his party will pursue one policy and the following night the party leader in Wales or Scotland saying something else?
I absolutely agree. The problem is not to do with people taking different positions; it is to do with what will happen in the month or few weeks before an election when the issues are being debated on the hustings and being reported in the newspapers. I have an awful vision of us running two sets of hustings and trying to get people to come out to slightly chilly church halls to listen to completely different debates on different nights-although it is perfectly possible to get people to come out to such events when elections take place at different times. Why make this happen when we do not have to?
Is the point not that elections to the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland and to the Parliament in Scotland feel like general elections? Indeed, effectively the law treats them like general elections in that a free post is allowed through the Royal Mail and the broadcasters have to report events in certain ways. A conflict will arise if every 20 years we hold these elections on the same day.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information, and I do not think that Government Members appreciate that aspect. What we are talking about is not a local government election that we might be facing next year or in 2015. The elections we are talking about are not less important than general elections for people in Scotland, because people in Scotland consider the Scottish Government to be the Government of the country for the purposes for which they have powers. They are a Government: they have a First Minister, a Cabinet and a national aspect in the sense that they are the Government in a Parliament that covers the part of the UK that is Scotland. I am not trying to ignore Wales or Northern Ireland at all in this, and the same principles apply to them.
If we respect what we have achieved through devolution, it is important that we do not allow that to be swamped. We have those different debates and policies, and people have their chance to vote differently, which they do-I am not for a minute going to suggest that people will not vote differently on the same day, because I know that that can happen. The genuine ability to separate out these areas of politics and to allow each legislature its real place and presence within our constitution is simply being ignored by these measures. As I have said, it seems to me that there is no reason for that.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument on the practical issues. Has she also had time to consider how the broadcasting authorities will maintain some element of balance, as they will have to schedule programmes for two different elections with two different political dynamics-with different parties being in different positions in different parts of the country? Are we not placing an impossible burden on those whom we are asking to implement the legislation currently going through the House?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Yet again, that is another aspect of a situation that we are creating. Apparently-Mrs Laing let the cat out of the bag-this is being done not for any good and strong constitutional reason or because we can argue about the history of the past 200 years, but because it suits this coalition Government to have this Parliament last for five years. It suits them to have this provision wrapped up with the other parts of the Bill, which will be debated later, to try to ensure that the coalition holds together. This is being wrapped up as a constitutional Bill and it is being presented as something that will last into the future but, given our constitution, it is possible for a future Parliament to change that, so we are not entrenching things.
My hon. Friend mentions the future. Has she, like me, worked out that if we have a second five-year term, we will run slap bang into the local government elections in Scotland, which we have put back by a year? We would then have an even worse situation than the one in 2007, with a general election and the local government elections leading to hundreds of thousands of spoiled ballot papers.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information, because it adds to the important case that we are presenting. The people who find this highly amusing clearly have not had the experience that we had. It is incumbent on a Government who said that they would want to look at the evidence and make decisions on the basis of hard facts to listen to the evidence being given by people who have been through this process and who understand the complexities of devolution in a situation where we still have a UK Government. We have had experience of this, as have the elected bodies, which have given their view very clearly to the UK Government but have been ignored. They were not consulted before this, but they gave their view and told of their experience, so it is not asking too much of any Government to say, "Perhaps we have not got this right."
Perhaps the simplest thing for the Government to do is not to try to see whether they could slip the election by a month, as has been suggested by some people. That would represent the worst of all possible worlds for the voters, let alone for the political parties. The simplest thing would be to say, "We have got this wrong, but we believe in fixed-term Parliaments." The Labour party proposed fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto and the Liberals believe in them too. I am not sure whether the Conservatives believe in them, but they introduced this legislation so presumably they now do. We all seem to agree that there should be fixed-term Parliaments. On that basis, why are we having this debate? Because the coalition Government are so determined to stick to their first thought, which was to have five years.
The Government may be doing that only for advantage and to feel that they have the longest possible time in which to be the Government. I have to say to the hon. Member for Epping Forest that she and others on the Government Benches may feel that they have an entitlement to sit for five years, having been elected, but a lot of people in the country have a very different view. The majority party in the coalition did not get a majority for its policies. The junior partner in the coalition went to the people on a different set of policies, so the people who voted for the Liberals did not vote for the programme of this coalition Government. The Government's approach seems particularly unfortunate for democracy in this country, given that the Government do not have a mandate to rule in the majoritarian fashion that they are doing.
Is the hon. Lady therefore saying that her party does not accept that a coalition of two parties is sufficient to run the country? Does she believe only in first-past-the-post majority rule, and must we keep having elections until we get some sort of majority Government by default?
Coming from Scotland and having seen both coalitions and minority Governments in operation, I am very open to various ways of running a Government. I would not for a minute want to suggest that it always has to be an absolute majority, that first past the post is what we need or that we need majorities.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent and forceful argument, drawing on the arguments that we have heard before. She is saying very well that there is consensus in this House about fixed-term Parliaments, but that constitutional change should be undertaken very carefully to ensure that it creates a settlement that is sustainable and stable. Separating national elections from UK elections is an important part of that, because it makes for a crisper, more certain mandate from the people whom we have a duty to serve. When the people are going to the polls for the Assembly or the parliamentary elections, they should be clear that those are the prime elections to focus on. When there is a UK election, they can focus on that. For that reason, four-yearly terms would be much better at this time.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, with which I wholly agree.
Ordinary electors thought that a hung Parliament would be a good idea, because they genuinely believed that there would be openness and that people would listen to different points of view. That has not happened. The strong views of the elected Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been listened to. The bulk of the evidence given to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, of which I am a member, was clearly in favour of four-year fixed-term Parliaments. Why should that weight of evidence be ignored? Was that what people expected from a more consensual and open approach? I think that a lot of people thought that coalition meant that we would get the best bits from everyone and that everyone would sit around and have discussions-
The hon. Lady seems to think that they did get the best bits from everyone, but that makes it clear to me that she did not believe in the manifesto on which she stood because so many parts of it seem to have been ditched in favour of the policies of the other party.
A small and simple change-a very small concession-that would not in any way interfere with the principle of fixed-term Parliaments would make it far easier for the Bill to be passed relatively quickly. It would allow national elections in all parts of the United Kingdom to go forward in the best possible way and our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies to present their policies to the electorate in the way they want to.
Our media are very England-centric-and, indeed, London-centric-although Government Members might not be so acutely aware of that as Opposition Members are, and I fear that the domination of the UK-wide poll and the important issues it involves, which must be dealt with, will be such that the important elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly will, sadly, be overwhelmed. I fear that the issues, ideas and important policies that concern those elections will not be fully debated before the population, that the arguments will not be properly heard and that people will not get the chance to have their say about how those legislatures have functioned in the preceding years, but it is important that they should get that say.
The bulk of the evidence that the Select Committee heard was that what is being asked is not a lot. It seems to be simply stubbornness-perhaps it is about political advantage above all else-to stick to the same position in the face of all the arguments that we have heard. I hope that it is not too late, even now, for the Government to rethink their position and to allow the Bill to pass through the House with the agreement of all parties because we have reached genuine consensus.
It is a delight and pleasure to serve under you, Miss Begg. This evening has been an extraordinarily educative process. We have looked very far back into the past and I should like to imagine some time in the future. I imagine a group of fresh-faced young students in some constitutional history class at some as-yet-unbuilt school-perhaps the Tony Blair faith academy, the Ann Widdecombe college of dance and drama or, hopefully, the Eleanor of Epping college of education for the daughters of gentlefolk. In one of those as-yet-unbuilt but glorious buildings, some pernickety pedagogue will turn to the class and say, "Let us go back to the November of 2010 and see what the House of Commons was debating." The pedagogue will say, "They were discussing the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill," and someone will ask, "What was the context?" The Government amendments before us refer specifically to compromise, but the key point is the context in which the Government are bringing the Bill before the House tonight. It is based on expediency, not ethics. Just as no good fruit can grow from a diseased tree, the coalition is like the upas tree, poisoning the soil all around it. They are trying to poison our very constitution with this appalling Bill.
Much as I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's flow, I remind him that we are in Committee and that he must address his comments to the amendments before us, rather than the Bill in general.
I stand abashed, ashamed and corrected, but, as ever, eager to serve, Miss Begg. I was about to turn specifically to the amendment of Jonathan Edwards, who speaks for Plaid Cymru. The amendment is supported by a broad coalition of the better brains in the House, including Mr MacNeil, whose constituency is possibly the most unpronounceable in Scotland. The amendment offers an alternative to the centralist, Stalinist, steel-like structure of a five-year Parliament. It offers something that we are prepared to support for the good of the nation although not all of us believe in it entirely in our hearts-a four-year fixed-term Parliament.
To see the amendments in the specific context, we have to think of what happened in May this year, when two groups of people were trying to buy a house. They were trying to bid for that great mansion of state that is this United Kingdom, and they found that even as the previous occupants were leaving with dignity from the front door, neither of them had enough money to buy the house, so they both moved in at the same time. Maybe they daubed the soffit with a bit of yellow and put a touch of blue on the eaves, but they had no choice.
You will no doubt be asking yourself, Miss Begg, how this relates to the amendments before us. That is precisely what I was coming to. I do not wish to comment on the sleeping habits of Liberal Democrats. That is far too exotic an area for me, but the camp bed in the living room and, in the master bedroom, surrounded by damask silken curtains, the great four-poster bed that the Conservatives occupy represent a compromise, which is the basis of the coalition.
The Bill on the Floor of the House today at the Committee stage refers to the creation of a structure that will bind together two disparate groups of people-the people who virtually bought the house and the lodgers on the camp bed in the front room. You may think that that is not relevant, and I would have to say, Miss Begg, that I agree with you, but the point that I am trying to make is that the Bill must be seen in the context from which it comes.
Is not the point, in relation to five-year or four-year fixed-term Parliaments, the one that was made by the professor of constitutional law at King's college London, Robert Blackburn who, in his evidence to the Select Committee, said of the genesis of the Bill that
"it is, I think, fairly clear that it is driven by the political self-interest of the coalition Government. They want to fix the lifetime of this Government-not the Parliament, but the Government"?
Miss Begg, I am, as ever, attendant to your body language and I am interpreting every flicker of that elegantly sculptured eyebrow, even as we speak.
The Septennial Act 1715, as amended by the Parliament Act 1911, is the Act that we will lose, should the Bill reach the statute book. The key point is that if, in the interest of expediency and of pleasing the coalition, we bring in a five-year fixed-term Parliament in contra-indication and contrast to the existing legislation, we place this country in peril indeed. The Bill at present on the Floor of the House at Committee stage, which I read with great care a few moments ago, is hedged around with all sorts of caveats so that an election may not be held on a day of national mourning or thanksgiving or on Christmas day. The Bill is limiting.
I support the amendment because that limitation restricts the right and privilege of the House to decide, under certain circumstances. There are emergencies or there may be some dramatic situation where an election has to take place. The removal of the royal prerogative, on this day of all days, is not something that I wish to comment on.
The hon. Gentleman mentions days when the election can take place. Does he agree that the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies of the United Kingdom should be given proper respect, and therefore that new clause 4 should be supported? That would allow them to see whether particular days did not suit them. Whether it be Christmas, Burns night, Hallowe'en or whatever, they should be given the choice if there were a clash between the elections to this place and to the great Parliament of Scotland, and the attendant media were unable to cope.
Today is Eid al-Adha, and that is an important factor that should be taken into consideration. At the risk of offending my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore and being too London-centric, there are different times in different parts of this United Kingdom when an election may not be appropriate. Judging by the results, it seems we may have had an election on Hallowe'en on a few occasions, but there are certain days on which demonstrably we should not be doing so. However, by limiting ourselves in this way, by applying this template of centralism to the whole structure, we put ourselves in danger, which is why new clause 4, an elegantly crafted piece of work, which stands by itself in all its wonder and majesty, is something that we should happily support.
Clause 2(4), to which the amendments relate, shows the dreadful problems that we have. It states:
What thought has gone into this, when it says "so far as practicable"? The amendment addresses that specific point.
I am following my hon. Friend's argument very carefully, as all hon. Members will be. Is it not true that all the evidence is that in their fifth year Parliaments run out of steam and get tired, and the country is impatient for democratic renewal, and is not that why we should have four-year Parliaments or, as my hon. Friend Austin Mitchell argued, three-year Parliaments?
One reason why I support clause 1, page 1, line 13, is not because I am massively enamoured of the joys of four-year Parliaments as opposed to five-year Parliaments, nor because I think that there is a natural rhythm in the political cycle that means that every few years we get exhausted and have to have an election, but because it is the least-worst option. It is unfortunately a fact that sometimes we have to present that option. I happily present the hon. Gentleman from the constituency that one day I will be able to pronounce.
There has been confusion in the House that somehow five years is bad and four years is good. It is almost Orwellian. The fact that five years in the UK has turned out to be bad is because people tend to leave it to five years. The reason I support four years is not because I think five years is particularly bad, but four years is long enough to spend without going back to the people to ask for another mandate. It is a democracy, after all, and ultimately the people, through the ballot box, rule. Politicians and elected people are stretching the credulity of the electorate to go beyond four years. The example of Scotland again is tremendous for Westminster.
Amendment 11 addresses these points. The reality is that if we had a fixed-term Parliament-I appreciate I am arguing for a fourth year rather than a fifth year-what dreadful temptations would come the way of susceptible politicians? Legislation would be front-loaded, knowing that there was never the possibility of an early election by which they might be made accountable to the people. I appreciate that clause 1 may be influenced by future legislation on recalls. We could find ourselves with so many recall petitions that we in fact have a new Parliament in the middle. There are certain aspects in the Bill later-not specifically relevant to clause 1, before you mention it, Miss Begg-which refer to the power to dissolve. But the most important, most salient point here is that if we locked the system into a four-year or five-year cycle, we would lose that glorious uncertainty of the democratic oversight. We would lose that concern, may I say, even, on occasion, that fear of the electorate, which is the honest emotion that parliamentarians should always feel.
The reason we want a fixed-term Parliament, particularly those in minority parties, who are never in the party of government in this situation-in Scotland we made sure that it is far more democratic-is not the fear of the electorate, it is the fear of the Government, using the particular wins that they have created for their own advantage in a narrow period of time. There is an advantage in a fixed-term Parliament. Some people prefer five, some people prefer four. I am in the four camp-
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman when I make my own speech.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because mention was made earlier-perhaps too much mention for many of us-of the American political system, where, by having fixed terms, there is permanent campaigning and fundraising, a permanence that takes away what I referred to as the glorious uncertainty borne of the possibility and potential of hearing the people's voice. The voices of the funding committees and various other supportive bodies are heard, but that sword of Damocles, which should be hanging over the head of every politician in a modern democracy, is somehow removed, because it is winched slowly down by clockwork, instead of dangling from a piece of monofilament.
Now, I think that Mr McLoughlin wanted to intervene.
Are you sure?
I hope that I have expressed tonight a sincere and heartfelt view that, just as everything must be seen whence it sprang, this Bill, which we are considering in Committee, has sprung from a coalition that is fundamentally unsound and based not on political realities but expediency. The group of proposed changes before us, which would set the date, elections and length of a Parliament, would go some way towards mitigating this-I dare not say "evil", because that would be too strong a word-sordid, mean, pettifogging, limp, expediency of a Bill.
Is he your friend?
My hon. Friend makes the point about the number of amendments in this group, and they aim to ensure not just that the term is fixed at four years, but that the cycle of fixed terms does not clash with the cycle of fixed terms for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections. This Chamber has already imposed a UK referendum on those elections next year, and now, under this Bill, the Government want to impose a UK general election on the devolved elections in 2015 as well.
My hon. Friend, not for the first time and almost certainly not for the last, makes a very powerful and pertinent point. If the Bill proceeds tonight without the benefit of the amendments that we are discussing, it will be not just the political cycle that is locked into a four or five-year time frame, but the economic cycle and so many other aspects of life. They will then be locked into a fixed term. That fixed term will apply not just to Parliament, but to the country, and that is dangerous. It is dangerous if we always assume that, no matter what a Government do, they can get away with it, because there will be no election for three, four or, heaven forbid, five years.
That is the danger, and that is when the markets start to build in an assumption of front-loading and when other countries assume that, although there may or may not be a change of Government in the future, there will not be one at that moment in time. That is when offence is given to all parts of this nation with different traditions, different histories and different days of great and signal importance. There are so many fears, so many concerns, so many worries, and the case made for the group of amendments is so powerful and so much a matter of righteousness that it would be otiose of me to continue to press it any longer.
I sit down, Miss Begg, with apologies if I may on occasion have strayed slightly from the purity of the amendments before us, but I hope profoundly that this House will tonight agree that the people matter more than political fixes, and that somehow this is about the constitution, not about the coalition.
It is a great pleasure to speak with you, Miss Begg, in the Chair.
A number of Members said that they thought that the Government would be running out of steam, but it is a very clear sign that the Opposition are running out of steam when they have to wheel members of the Whips Office in to argue a case-a case, actually, against their own Front Benchers. Their Front Benchers are in favour of four-year terms, so Stephen Pound would have done a better job if he had troubled to read the Bill, the amendments and clause 1.
In addressing the amendments that deal with clause 1 on the proposed length of the fixed term and the date of the next election, it might be helpful to explain at the outset why the Government have taken the approach that we have set out in the Bill. The Government announced in the coalition agreement our intention to introduce a Bill for fixed-term Parliaments, and I have listened to a good number of arguments for and against the proposed five-year term, not least today. The Government strongly believe that a five-year fixed term is right, not only for this Parliament but for subsequent Parliaments, as it will provide the country with the strong and stable Government that it needs.