Clause 3 — Dissolution of Parliament

Succession to the Crown – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 18th January 2011.

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Votes in this debate

Amendment proposed: 8, page 2, line 29, leave out '17th' and insert '25th'.- (Chris Bryant .)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided: Ayes 234, Noes 314.

Division number 174 Succession to the Crown — Clause 3 — Dissolution of Parliament

Aye: 234 MPs

No: 314 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Third Reading

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats 9:11 pm, 18th January 2011

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

I am grateful to Members who have taken part in debates on the Bill, in particular Mr Allen, who sadly is not in his place, and members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who have been forensic in their scrutiny.

The Bill's reforms are an essential part of the Government's drive to modernise Parliament. Currently, a Prime Minister can, effectively, call an election on a whim-a situation that my colleague and friend, the late Lord Holme of Cheltenham, once described as a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach the track with his or her running shoes in one hand and the starting pistol in the other. Something as important as the timing of a general election must not be determined by the whims of Prime Ministers and the self-interest of political parties. I believe that all parties agree on that. The Bill proposes the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments, bringing a new stability to our political system and, crucially, ensuring that when Parliament does dissolve early, that is a matter for this House.

Debate on the Bill has been vigorous. That is why we allowed extra time in Committee. While we may not see eye to eye with colleagues on the Opposition Benches on every detail, throughout the debates there was broad agreement on what it seeks to achieve.

Let me turn briefly to some of the issues that have attracted most attention. First, on early dissolution, the Bill provides that Parliament will be dissolved early only if at least two thirds of MPs vote for dissolution or if a Government are unable to secure the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days of a no-confidence vote-passed on a simple majority, exactly as is provided for right now.

Those arrangements are complementary. They are workable. Most importantly, they strengthen the power of Parliament to hold Government to account. We are proposing a new power for the House to vote for an early dissolution, as well as, for the first time, giving legal effect to the existing procedures for a vote of no confidence. I ask Members to note that the Constitution Committee in the other place has endorsed those two mechanisms for triggering an early election.

The Government do not accept the concern that the new right to dissolve Parliament will undermine this House's exclusive cognisance. Such an important constitutional innovation absolutely should be laid down in statute, but we are confident that the courts will continue to regard matters certified by the Speaker as relating to proceedings in Parliament, which are, in turn, protected by the Bill of Rights. I was delighted that the Constitution Committee-a Committee that includes distinguished parliamentarians and lawyers-agreed with the Government's assessment of the Bill's interaction with parliamentary privilege.

On the length of Parliaments, we have looked into the suggestion that four years is preferable to five. It is true that this is not an exact science. It is a question of judgment, but, all the arguments considered, we remain of the strong view that five years, the current maximum and more recently the norm, will encourage the stability and long-term perspective that British politics too often lacks.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

Can the Deputy Prime Minister give us one example in which he or another leading member of the Liberal Democrats before May last year was in favour of a five-year fixed-term Parliament?

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

We were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments above and beyond all else, and always accepted that the issue of whether it was four years or five years was a matter of judgment, as I said. Five years, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is the maximum term available to us already, and of the last five Parliaments three stretched to five years, including the last Parliament under a Labour Government.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby

But the judgment of the Liberal party was that four years was the appropriate length of a Parliament. That is what was in the Liberals' manifesto and what they put up to the Labour side in the coalition negotiations. They asked for four years and election by single transferable vote. Why suddenly switch to five?

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

As I said, the principle of a fixed-term Parliament was by far the most important thing. Whether that is four or five years-some people argue for five, some argue for four-might divide opinion and might create synthetic objections from those on the Labour Benches, but it is none the less secondary to the principle of giving the House greater power over the Executive. That is what the Bill establishes. Personally, I would not fetishise about 12 months one way or another in a term of four or five years. We have decided in the coalition agreement and as a Government- [Interruption.] It is a decision from the Government. I know that Chris Bryant finds it deeply uncomfortable not to be in government. He is not. We are, and we have decided five years.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

One of the consequences of the decision to have a five-year term in the first instance will be the coincidence of the date of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2015. In the debate in Committee, we were advised by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr Harper that there would be discussions with the devolved Administrations on that. Can the Deputy Prime Minister report to us now on the outcome of those discussions?

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was present for my hon. Friend the Minister's update to the House on Report, when he gave a full account of the ongoing discussions with the devolved Administrations and the Presiding Officers of the devolved Assemblies. I understand that people have different views on the coincidence of the two elections in 2015, but I hope the hon. Lady and everyone else will recognise that the Bill does not create the possibility of a clash of elections. Indeed, a clash in 2015 could easily have occurred under the existing arrangements if this Parliament had continued until 2015.

What the Bill does is alert us well ahead of time that there is going to be such a clash. It allows us to anticipate and plan for a date that coincides in that way. As it happens, such clashes will occur only every 20 years. The discussions that we are entering now with the devolved Assemblies, the Presiding Officers and the leaders of the devolved Executives are precisely to take advantage of the fact that we have advance warning of an overlap or a clash, which otherwise we would not have had.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance, Belfast East

Although I accept the argument that parliamentary and Assembly elections could have coincided anyway, as might have happened in 2015, is this not a missed opportunity to take a constructive decision on whether such a coinciding is a good or bad thing so that we could then routinely avoid it or make it happen? Instead, it is again being left somewhat to chance.

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I agree that in principle a clash of elections to the devolved Assemblies and to the House of Commons should be avoided. As I have said before in debates, there is a world of difference between the potential for confusion among voters being asked to vote for two different Parliaments that will in turn create two different Executives or Governments-a wholly more serious issue-and the coincidence of such elections with a referendum on a specific yes or no issue, as will be the case with the AV referendum and the elections this May. We have always accepted the fundamental assertion that we need to find a way around that. We have had ongoing discussions and will continue to do so with an open mind. We made the suggestion that the devolved Assemblies should have the power to shift the date of their elections by six months either before or after the general election. That has not been greeted with universal approbation, but it is none the less a sincere attempt on our part to try to find a way forward.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform)

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is being generous in giving way. Can he confirm that the provision set out in clause 1(5) will extend the maximum length of a Parliament beyond five years and that therefore it would be the longest fixed-term Parliament in the world, other than Rwanda? There is no fixed-term Parliament in the world of five years.

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The hon. Gentleman has read the provisions of the Bill correctly, and I think that his point was confirmed by the Minister on Report. On the point about the coincidence of elections, Northern Ireland Office Ministers are conducting separate discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland, where the issues are slightly different. It would be inappropriate for me to prejudge the outcome of those ongoing discussions. We will of course endeavour to keep colleagues on the Opposition Benches informed.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the judgment about how long a Parliament should last is not an exact science. During the debates in Committee, I opted for four years because I felt that that was more appropriate. It would avoid the clashes and mean that we would engage regularly with our electorate, which we should all be doing. It would be important in helping to keep us all in touch with our constituents. Would he say more on the thinking behind the decision to have five years rather than four?

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

As I said before, that is the existing maximum and has been for a very long time. It has recently become the norm, as five of the past nine Parliaments stretched to five years, including the previous Parliament. The hon. Gentleman might disagree, but I hope that he will at least accept the legitimacy of the argument that a four-year Parliament, politics being what it is, would naturally incline parties in power to look towards the next election well ahead of that four-year deadline and that government would be arrested and suspended as the party in power positioned itself months or sometimes a year or so before an impending general election, which would curtail considerably the time in which Governments can do difficult and brave things. Five years, however, is clearly a period during which Governments can take difficult and bold decisions that from time to time, as we very well know now, are necessary.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

My right hon. Friend was asked about clause 1(5) and the length of time between general elections, but my reading of that provision is that it does not extend the life of a Parliament. Parliament will still expire after five years, but the general election has to come within two months after that if it is extended, which is a shorter period than the current maximum.

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg The Deputy Prime Minister , Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office), Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I defer to my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley on the theology of those things. The hon. Member for Rhondda says that he is wrong, but my understanding is that the Bill is fairy clear on that point, even if it a little opaque to me on that very specific point. As my hon. Friend knows, the provisions purely address highly exceptional circumstances that arise for one reason or another, such as unforeseen emergency circumstances. Foot and mouth is an obvious recent example of where it is self-evident that an election simply could not be conducted either practically or politically. That is what was we had in mind when we drafted the Bill in those terms.

In conclusion, the Government believe that fixed-term Parliaments represent a simple but absolutely fundamental change: strengthening Parliament, providing stability and moving us towards the new politics that we have all promised the people of Britain. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 9:25 pm, 18th January 2011

Things are desperate when the Whips have to arrange things to get most of the Liberal parliamentary party into the Chamber, but it is good to see two rows of Liberal MPs. The Deputy Prime Minister knows more about mutinies than I do, but I suspect that the situation tonight is similar to that of a football club chairman who says to his manager, "Your job is safe." I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman's continued contribution to debates about constitutional reform.

The Bill before us allows the Government to set in stone the date of the next general election as Thursday 7 May 2015. It also gives them time to foist a series of constitutional changes on to the country. They will reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs, redraw constituency boundaries and silence the voices of local residents through the removal of public inquiries. This Bill allows them the time to do that, and as Mr Jenkin, who is not in his place, said on Second Reading, it smacks of

"gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition".-[ Hansard, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 624.]

Photo of Louise Mensch Louise Mensch Conservative, Corby

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to suggest that, by the Prime Minister giving up power and by making the votes of people in Corby equal to the votes of people in the Rhondda, we are gerrymandering the Bill? That is an amazing use of language.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

That Bill is being discussed in the other place. It starts again at 3.30 tomorrow.

The hon. Lady should be interested in my next point, however, because the Bill before us also ties the hands of the Conservative party to the Liberal Democrats. With this Bill, their respective fates and identities become inseparable. Make no mistake: the Bill is not for the good of the country; it is for the good of the Ministers on the Treasury Bench. What compounds that outrageous piece of attempted constitutional fixing is the fact they are trying to ram it through at breakneck speed. That urgency is because Back Benchers from both coalition parties are having second thoughts about the issue, so party managers need to get them super-glued together quickly, with no way out.

Throughout the Bill's passage, we have raised a number of concerns about its content and its scrutiny. I have no problem with the Conservative party being converts to fixed-term Parliaments.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

No, I won't. Not to you.

The Liberal Democrats' policy was for four-year fixed-term Parliaments, but unfortunately the coalition has hijacked a sensible and progressive idea, amended it for its own means and tried to rush through legislation preventing a proper, wide-ranging debate on an important -[Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has been in charge of timetabling the Bill, and if he had wanted to speak, he should have allowed more time for debate.

Once again, we will rely on the other place to inject a sense of fairness-

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If the right hon. Gentleman had intended to take up the first two minutes of his speech himself, one might have understood his response. If he intends to let others come in, however, why does he not let the Minister have a word?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

The hon. Gentleman is very experienced and knows that that is not a point of order. It is entirely up to Mr Khan as to whom he decides to give way to. While I am on my feet, may I remind Members that there is supposed to be only one Member on their feet at any one time in the Chamber?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate and congratulate him on his recent honour.

I want to be clear that the criticism of the speed with which the legislation is being pushed through comes not from us alone. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Clerk of the House of Commons, Professor Robert Hazell of the constitution unit and other academic experts, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have all criticised not only the Bill, but the way in which it is being rushed through without consideration for the consequences on our constitution, both intended and unintended.

May I deal with an important point at the outset? It has been said that the Bill needs to go through unchanged because it is part of the coalition agreement. The new politics means that we can forget about what people voted for, about manifestos and about the promises that were made before the election. The deal that was done means that the agreement that was reached after the election cannot be touched. However, the Bill no longer provides for a general election if 55% of hon. Members believe that one is needed, as was stated in the coalition agreement. The Deputy Prime Minister made an embarrassing U-turn on that issue, proving that the coalition agreement has no constitutional significance at all. I hope that the other place will pay heed to that.

Our major concern from the beginning has been that five years is simply too long for a fixed-term Parliament. We have argued throughout the scrutiny process for four-year terms. That not only compares well with other Parliaments, but provides a better fit with our current constitutional arrangements. Moreover, we have heard the concerns of our colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about the short-term consequences of fixing Parliaments at five years. The potential clash with the Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland and the parliamentary election in Scotland on 7 May 2015 shows a blatant disregard for those parts of the Union.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

The right hon. Gentleman is keen to ascribe motives that were not present in the decision to make it five years. Will he give some indication of the thinking of the previous Prime Minister in deciding that the Parliament that has just ended should last five years?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The right hon. Gentleman will accept that, like his party, we were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments and that, like his party, we thought four years was the appropriate length of time. In between the ballot boxes closing and Liberal Democrats reaching their ministerial cars, his party changed the figure to five years for the simple reason that it meant that it could gerrymander before the next general election.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Will the right hon. Gentleman remind the House how he voted on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill introduced by my predecessor, David Howarth?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The hon. Gentleman should explain why he has changed his mind in relation to his predecessor's Bill. He will recall that there was insufficient time to allow the Bill introduced by his predecessor-a very good and honourable man-to receive proper debate in the House of Commons. The question that should be asked is why the hon. Gentleman has done a U-turn on that Bill. [ Interruption. ] The Whip, Mr Francois, heckles me but if he wants to get to his feet, I am happy to take an intervention.

This sort of Westminster arrogance will not go down well in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. People in those places will remember the arrogant way in which the Deputy Prime Minister's deputy, after a number of hours of debate on this issue on day one of the Committee, and after a number of Members had spoken, pulled from his pocket an option to allow devolved Assembly elections to be brought forward by up to six months in the event of their being scheduled at the same time as a general election. There was no consultation and no discussion with us or the devolved Administrations before that. We have heard how unhappy they are with this.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

The right hon. Gentleman knows, as I made clear at the time, that I announced that option in this House first because I thought it proper for Parliament to hear it first. I then wrote to all the party leaders. During the process, I have kept him informed, have placed copies of the correspondence in the House of Commons and have updated the House. At all stages, I have kept this House informed, as is the proper process.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to intervene again. Is it not right that a number of colleagues had taken part in the debate and an amendment had been moved, and that it was only towards the end of the evening that he pulled the option out of his pocket?

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

I was very keen to do something that the previous Government did not do often: I listened to the debate and to the concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House, and then announced to the House what I thought might be a sensible move forward. As I said on Report, colleagues in the devolved Parliament and Assemblies have written back to me to say that they are less than overwhelmed by my proposals. That is why we did not move them on Report. That was a perfectly sensible way to conduct matters.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

The problem is that an amendment was moved, hon. Members took part in the debate, and then the Minister introduced the other option, yet gave us no chance to respond, because of the guillotining by those on the Government Front Bench.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Opposition Whip (Commons)

Surely the point is that the Minister knew that information at the start of the debate, but he chose not to inform the House at that stage.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

My hon. Friend makes the point well.

More recently, and more importantly for this House, our concerns about the length of the Parliament have been strengthened since the Bill was in Committee by the Lords Constitution Committee. In his short contribution, the Deputy Prime Minister cherry-picked parts of its report, but he missed out the most crucial bit. In the Constitution Committee's view, five years is simply too long. Like us, it argues that four years is more appropriate. Its report challenged the Deputy Prime Minister's assertions that the Government's progress on constitutional and political reform, of which the Bill is a key component, will make Parliament more accountable to the people. The Constitution Committee argues that the provisions in the Bill to fix the length of Parliaments to five years would lead to less frequent elections and make the legislature less accountable, not more. Under a system of fixed five-year terms, there would have been four fewer elections since 1945.

I know the pressure that will be brought to bear on Government Members to support the Bill-a Bill that they do not believe in and that they have a problem with. However, when they come to decide whether to give it a Third Reading, they should remember the words of the Lords Constitution Committee, which said that a five-year term was

"inconsistent with the Government's stated aim of making the legislature more accountable, inconsistent with existing constitutional practice and inconsistent with the practice of the devolved institutions and the clear majority of international legislatures"- except in Rwanda. If the Bill goes through this House, the Opposition will be looking to the Lords to heed the advice of their own Constitution Committee and recognise that four years is a much more sensible length of time for a fixed-term Parliament.

Time is short, so I will not go into the other problems that we have with the Bill. However, what I will say, and for the second time in a number of months, is that I am optimistic and sincerely hopeful that the other place will inject some sanity into this Bill, through proper scrutiny. This Bill is rushed, self-serving and opportunistic. It is an affront to how we ought to go about amending and improving our constitution. We shall be voting against it being given a Third Reading.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne 9:37 pm, 18th January 2011

I have no rancour against the coalition. I think that it is doing some wonderful things: in deficit reduction, welfare reform and education. We are lucky to have two very fine young men at the head of this coalition-they know who they are, and they do not need to be named. However, I feel that they have got this one wrong. This Bill is a mistake. We have had 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy. We have had no despots ruling-and ruining-this country. We have a great deal to be proud of. I have listened to the arguments closely from the outset. I voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and I had hoped to be persuaded in the intervening weeks that somehow I was wrong and that many of my colleagues were right. However, I am afraid that I was right and they are wrong. This remains an extremely bad Bill.

Some wonderful arguments have been put forward. We have been told that the British public do not like general elections-that we must have less of them; that the last thing that my constituents want is a general election every three or four years, because they are so bored of them. However, in the same breath, we are told that we should have elections for mayors and police commissioners; and yet somehow, the most important election of all-a general election-is relegated to something that we would rather not have, and if we must have them, we should have them every five years.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be standing in his seat at the next general election and that the reason his constituents cannot wait is that they want once again to affirm his brilliance.

We have had 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy, and we are now turning our backs on that a little hastily. Of course, we can draw on the European model. Europe is a great place-I think it is absolutely wonderful-but there is not a great deal that it can teach us about democracy. Democracy is an innovation across most of Europe, arriving in 1945 and 1946 in some places, and in the late 1990s in others. So, although many good things are happening in Europe, our parliamentary democracy is something that we should be proud of.

I do not want to stray outside the bounds of this Third Reading debate, so I shall conclude my remarks by saying that I think this coalition is going to last for five years. It is led by two honourable and right honourable Gentlemen, and if they want it to last for five years, they will take their parliamentary parties with them. But it should not be the duty of Parliament to do the heavy lifting for the coalition. That is the duty of the coalition partners. The Bill is a grave mistake, and I am afraid that there is only one thing I can do from now on: I must work tirelessly for the rest of my parliamentary career to become Prime Minister so that I can do away with what I regard as this rather dangerous piece of nonsense.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central 9:41 pm, 18th January 2011

I am grateful that we have been allowed to discuss the Bill. Today's debate has been awash with the abuse of peers at the other end of the Palace who have simply being doing their job of scrutinising Government legislation. We should not omit the vital role of the newly ennobled Lord Fellowes in that act of scrutiny, whose contribution was, we are told, to give an hour-long talk in an upstairs room entitled "A life on stage and screen". Such are the indignities of packing the second Chamber.

I wish to focus on the length of the fixed-term Parliament. We have seen, in the actions of the Government in relation to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, that what drives them is not the good of the nation but the good of the coalition-or the Tory-led Government, as we like to call them. They are always at pains to ensure the that yin and yang of the coalition are in perfect harmony, so, rather than giving people the chance to put away the notion of the alternative vote on 5 May, they are demanding to keep the two parts of the Bill together to keep the coalition happy. And so it is with this Bill. It proposes a Parliament of five years, not four years, because that is what the coalition, not the nation, needs.

Professor Robert Blackburn, of King's college, London, put it well when he 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. In my view, the period between general elections should clearly be four years".

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's argument. If the coalition's motive had simply been to postpone an election for five years in order to have more time to sort the country out, that could have been achieved by prime ministerial decision. What the Bill does is to ensure that the next Government, and the one after that and the one after that, will be subject to these provisions. Perhaps, some day, the hon. Gentleman's party will recover enough to form such a Government.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

Coalition Members really do not understand the difference between the norm and the maximum. We have had this problem with them over many weeks now. The issue is whether we want to move from the norm to the maximum. Across the academic and political communities, we can see-if we look at the work of Robert Hazell, for example-that four years are preferred to five. The view of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee-on which I am happy to serve with Simon Hart-was that most opinion suggests that it would be better for general elections to be held every four years, rather than every five.


If it were going to be four, will someone please allow us to have it so it does NOT coincide with all-out local elections every 4 years. What we want is some space to be able to focus properly on local issues at local elections and national issues at general elections. The tories are keen on localism - apparently - so it's about time they started valuing local views. Same with AV referendum, I think the tories ought to show us they mean what they say...

Submitted by Nicky Davis Continue reading

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that fixing the term at five years automatically favours the Government of the day, whereas it can of course have the opposite effect. Does he agree with me, as did some of the witnesses who appeared before our Committee, that by tying themselves into a five-year fixed term, the Government might find that the election coincides with a rather dismal period in the opinion polls, giving great advantage to the Opposition? I thought that that evidence was given to the Select Committee-

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but the benefits of a fixed-term schedule outweigh those potential risks. I regard four years as within the rhythm of this country, as it is within the rhythm of other European as well as Westminster-style democracies- Canada, Denmark, the American presidential term, Germany, Sweden. The change to five years is for the good of the coalition, not the nation.

The Deputy Prime Minister referred to and quoted the Chartists again in today's Question Time, but the Chartists believed in annual Parliaments, not in extending the term to five years. As we have heard, the Liberal Democrats used to believe in four-year terms-before the allure of office moved them to change their minds. May I suggest that the coalition listen to a real coalition leader, the late Herbert Asquith? On introducing his own cut to the parliamentary term, he spoke of securing a House of Commons that is

"always either fresh from the polls which it 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, 21 February 1911; Vol. XXI, c. 1749.]

That seems to be the perfect combination. I will move on quickly, as others wish to speak.

I do not feel that the Government have dealt with the problem of exclusive cognisance very effectively, so it still poses the danger of judicial interference. This Bill fits all too neatly into the Government's overarching constitutional reform strategy: coalition first, country second. Whether it be packing the House of Lords, increasing the number of Ministers by 10%, undermining the Union by slashing 25% of constituencies in Wales, or overriding historic or geographic settlements in new parliamentary boundaries, it is Clegg and Cameron first, country second. That is the abiding weakness of coalition Government. The tragedy is that if this Bill is passed, we will have five years of it.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire 9:47 pm, 18th January 2011

I start by thanking the shadow Minister, Chris Bryant for early warning of his visit to my constituency next week. I extend the invitation to him; if he does not find the speech to the Labour group in Tenby going as well as he would like, he is always very welcome in my house, as he well knows.

Ministers are well aware that of all the constitutional measures going through Parliament, I find this one to be undoubtedly the most attractive. I have to say that I have found it ever more attractive as the debates have played out. One reason is that Wales provides a living example of fixed-term Parliaments. If my voters and electors are anything to go by, there is a very relaxed attitude towards whether it will be four or five years before they are asked to go to the polls.

There seems to be an increasing amount of synthetic frustration being expressed-not by all Members, but by some Opposition Members-about the potential economic, social, cultural and constitutional damage that can be done by this measure. If the experience of Wales is anything to go by, that is a very long way from the truth. The public are completely relaxed about whether they are required to follow the pattern adopted by the Welsh Assembly or the proposal before us tonight.

I referred in an earlier intervention-on Tristram Hunt, if my memory serves me right-to witnesses appearing before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Although there was a general tendency for those witnesses to err in favour of a four-year fixed term, there was certainly no significant alarm bell sounded about a five-year fixed term. Simply citing a number of other examples across Europe and the rest of the world in an attempt to suggest that this would have devastating effects in the UK simply does not wash. There are plenty of examples in the UK-Wales is one of them-to confirm that.

The argument I have heard repeated over and over again by the shadow Minister and others is that this measure will result in us having the longest fixed-term Parliament ever, to which I say, "So what?" If the public and my electors, in common with electors further afield in Wales and elsewhere, are as content as they seem to be, so what? If it results in settled and sound government, we should have nothing to fear from it.

Let me end my brief speech by saying that we have heard no evidence, either in the Select Committee or during today's debate, to suggest that a five-year fixed term would pose any constitutional, economic, social or any other dangers that need trouble the House or, much more importantly, the voters who put us here.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby 9:50 pm, 18th January 2011

It was interesting to hear the Deputy Prime Minister present as a great constitutional innovation what is in fact a sordid little Bill, which is intended to keep the coalition clinging together for five years in the hope that that will be long enough for the Liberal Democrats to extract some concessions from the Conservatives as a reward for joining the coalition.

Sadly, this brings to mind an image from the Brazil floods that many of us saw on television last week. A poor lady was on the roof of her house clutching a dog-the poor lady representing the Conservative party, and the dog representing the Liberal Democrats. The lady was being winched up by a helicopter, while the dog was being washed away. That is the end of the story. The woman was saved, as the Conservative party will be by this measure, but the Liberal Democrat dog was washed away into the waters.

The Opposition have tried to amend and improve the Bill. We have tried to remove some of its faults. In particular, we have tried to reduce the term involved, or rather to prevent a five-year term from becoming the norm-for although the Deputy Prime Minister has described five years as the norm, it is not; it is the exception.

It has been said that this is a genius of a Bill because it prevents Prime Ministers from manipulating the economy, or manipulating politics, in order to be returned to office. That happened in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when Prime Ministers could manipulate the economy. Now the economy manipulates Prime Ministers. When we examine the record of past Prime Ministers, it is interesting to note how many of them made timing mistakes that lost them elections. Let me list them. Wilson in 1970: mistaken timing. Heath in 1974: mistaken timing. It was either three weeks too late or three months too early. Callaghan in 1979: mistaken timing. He should have gone for it in 1978. Then there was one called Brown who should have gone for it in 2007, but, as was mentioned earlier, he made the mistake of outstaying his welcome.

That is what the coalition will do by extending the length of this Parliament. The fact is that the people want us to be kept us a shorter leash, and shorter Parliaments provide the most effective way of ensuring that that happens. They ensure that we remain accountable, that we present ourselves to the electorate, and that we are open to re-election. I think that a three-year Parliament, like that adopted by Australia and New Zealand, would be far more sensible, and would accord more with the public mood. [Interruption.] Forget 1984; I have already.

Let me end-because I want to be brief-by saying that the Bill is an attempt to keep the coalition in power through manipulation. I think that the coalition will find in five years that by trying to stay in power and by manipulating the electoral system through the loss of 50 Members-which the Deputy Prime Minister presumably thinks will weaken the Executive-it has outstayed its welcome. That is certainly what happened to us-and indeed, the coalition has outstayed its welcome already.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole 9:53 pm, 18th January 2011

I do not intend to detain the House too long. My hon. Friend Mr Walker made many of the points that I would otherwise have made. He also launched a bid for the leadership of the Conservative party. I do not intend to emulate him in that regard; indeed, I do not think that I would be able to secure the necessary nominations.

I voted against the Bill on Second Reading, but I have absolutely no problems with the coalition. In fact, I have a great deal of regard for my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I have always respected him as a politician, although during the leadership debates my emotions were a bit more up and down in terms of his performance. I do not suggest for a moment that the aim of the Bill is to prop up the coalition. However, I think that the decision to adopt fixed five-year terms is wrong.

As I said in Committee, I think that one of our biggest problems following the expenses scandal and all that surrounded it is a disengagement with politics. I believe that a four-year term is more natural. It is the term to which we expect local councillors to adhere, as well as representatives in the devolved Parliament and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I fail to understand why the arguments as to why a councillor or MSP should serve for four years do not also apply to a Member of Parliament. Indeed, I am actually quite keen to get back to my electorate. When politicians have a five-year term, there is a temptation for them to take their foot off the pedal in respect of the work they do in their constituency. I hope not to do that; I hope still to be working as hard in two years' time as now. A four-year cycle is, however, a more natural political term, and I am very enthusiastic about engaging with my electorate as often as possible-so long as they make the right choice.

I also have a slight concern about the mechanism in the Bill for how an election is called. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne that hundreds of years of parliamentary history suggest that we have not in the past had a particular problem with that, so I do not understand why we are putting this convoluted system in place. Frankly however, it is not an issue that taxes many of my constituents. Their concern is that they get an election when the time is right.

I think everybody accepts that most of the terms that have run to five years have not, by any stretch of the imagination, been in the best interests of the country. I would not want us to end up with long Parliaments, with the public becoming increasingly disengaged and angry as we head towards a general election.

If we move to the alternative vote we could end up with a strange system. Candidates who have come second in their constituency but who still manage to get elected might represent a third party, and they might then determine whether we had a general election even though they had come second. Whichever party they might represent, I do not think allowing a party to switch sides midway through a Parliament and change the Government without going back to the people is at all desirable.

I will not detain the House any longer, as I know that one more Member wishes to speak. I opposed the Bill on Second Reading, and I will not support it if there is a Division on Third Reading, because I genuinely believe a four-year term is far more appropriate than five years.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury) 9:57 pm, 18th January 2011

Those of us who have been through all the stages of this Bill, including the Committee stage and the Report stage tonight, were delighted to see the Deputy Prime Minister join us. The same thing happened during proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill; the Deputy Prime Minister came in like Janet Webb at the end, pushing out the two comedians who had run the show, to make the valedictory statements.

Many of us have no issue with the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. We support that, but we do have serious questions about details of the Bill, and how it interacts with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. That other Bill is the real reason why the parliamentary term is being set at five years: that Bill fixes that the boundaries will be fixed every five years for each Parliament, which is what has necessitated the five-year fixed term in this Bill-it is because of that fix, and there is no point anybody denying that.

The Deputy Prime Minister and the Government have brought this Bill about in a way that has shown a complete disregard for the interests of the devolved institutions, as they also did with that other Bill. That reckless disregard almost has the air of a joyrider about it. The Deputy Prime Minister needs to recognise that the day will come when he will regret the premature miscalculation that has been involved in both these Bills. They will not hold the coalition together. As we have seen in the experience of Irish coalition politics on so many occasions, there comes a point in the life of a coalition when people look to get out of it.

The Deputy Leader of the House said earlier that this Bill will prevent any snap election in future. It will do no such thing. The device for a motion of no confidence is not unusable. It is not the case that nobody is ever going to use it; it will be used. Many of us have been through the experience in politics where the unthinkable has happened, because that is the device people had available to them. I have been belonged to a system where a resignation that took place was then deemed not to have taken place at all. I have been present when judgments that were meant to be made by a Secretary of State, under the law, to select a date were then completely undone. I have served with people who, on being elected to office, immediately had letters of resignation in their pockets, simply because that was the device that could be used. People will do the absurd. In politics, as in so many other things, when the imperative comes for divorce, divorce will take place. People will not say, "We are not going for it because we will have to go through temporary embarrassment or we will take some of the blame." That is what people will do, and the Liberal Democrats will find themselves caught in that situation, with the Tories and Labour happily ending this Parliament prematurely.

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 13 September).

The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83E), That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House divided: Ayes 320, Noes 234.

Division number 175 Fixed Term Parliaments Bill — Third Reading

A majority of MPs voted to hold general elections on a regular basis every five years, with some exceptions permitting early elections.

Aye: 320 MPs

No: 234 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name


Nos: A-Z by last name


Absent: 92 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read the Third time and passed.