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Clause 1 — Polling days for parliamentary general elections

Youth Employment – in the House of Commons at 2:59 pm on 13th July 2011.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 326
    A majority of MPs voted against requiring a resolution of both Houses of Parliament to approve the date of a general election.

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

I should like to make it clear that I am proposing that the House disagrees with their lordships on amendments 1, 2 and 9, and I shall set out the reasons for that. For the benefit of Members who have not had the chance to study the amendments in detail, they provide that the provisions in this excellent Bill be subject to a sunset clause after the next general election. Each subsequent Parliament would have the choice of whether to be a fixed-term Parliament or not. The Government want to oppose the amendments because we think that they fundamentally undermine the purpose of the Bill, which was welcomed by, among others, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of this House. I see a member of the Committee, Tristram Hunt sort of agreeing with me on the Opposition Benches.

In bringing forward the Bill, we are seeking to put in place a provision that we hope will become an established part of our constitutional arrangements—namely, that fixed-term Parliaments for this UK Parliament become the norm, just as they are for local government, for the devolved legislatures and for the European Parliament. Two of the most important things in the Bill—in the form that the Government would like it to take—are, first, the proposal for an ability to deny the Executive the ability to choose a date for a general election to suit their own ends and to ensure that the Prime Minister gives up that power for the first time, and, secondly, to deliver certainty on how long a Parliament will last, which will benefit not only parliamentarians but the public.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central 3:15 pm, 13th July 2011

Was the Minister disappointed, as I was, that their lordships did not seek to alter the limit for the fixed-term Parliament from five years to four years, which seems to be what the majority of the British public would like?

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

I was not in the slightest disappointed that this House and the House of Lords

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

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. My short answer is that I was not disappointed.

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

I will give way in a moment.

If the Lords amendments were accepted, the electorate would have no certainty as to how long the Parliament that they will elect on 7 May 2015 would last. Such certainty, and the principle behind the Bill, have been welcomed by many electoral administrators and by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Will the Minister tell the House where that desire for public certainty in relation to a five-year Parliament comes from? Does he think that there would be huge upset in 2015 if people were suddenly to discover that the Parliament might run for only four years—

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could let us know which part of the amendment he is referring to.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The polling that has been carried out suggests that the public support fixed-term Parliaments. Indeed, if we think back to the previous Parliament, there was a general sense, both in the House and among the public and commentators, that the “will he, won’t he” debate about whether Mr Brown would call an election on becoming Prime Minister was not helpful to good Government or to good democratic accountability. It will be helpful to have greater certainty, as that will benefit us all. Let us ask ourselves this question: if the Bill became law, and fixed-term Parliaments became the norm, would any Minister realistically be able to come to the Dispatch Box and suggest with a straight face that we should change the position and give the power back to the Prime Minister to hold an election at a time of his choosing to suit his political party? Would anyone take that proposition seriously? I suggest that they would not.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Has it occurred to the Minister that part of the problem with this wretched Bill is that it is trying to organise things to suit the requirements of this coalition? Decisions on the future should actually be down to the public at large, and if they want to get rid of a Parliament, they will do so in their own way. That is where the question of a confidence motion starts to kick in.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. We are not dealing with the whole Bill; we are dealing with the amendments. I am sure that the Minister will take that into account in his answer.

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

To be fair to my hon. Friend, Mr Deputy Speaker, he was speaking to the amendments that we are discussing. He made the assertion that our proposals would suit this particular Government during this particular Parliament, but that is simply not the case. If the Prime Minister wanted to ensure that this Parliament ran for the full five years and that the general election took place on 7 May 2015, he would need to do only one thing—namely, not approach Her Majesty the Queen to seek a Dissolution before that date. We could thereby achieve a five-year Parliament for this Parliament, but we want to make a change to our constitutional processes—I know that my hon. Friend Mr Cash does not agree with it—to remove from Prime Ministers the ability to choose the date of a general election.

The second part of my hon. Friend’s question effectively suggested that a sunset provision would be a good thing. Under our democratic system, the public elect Members of Parliament for a term. At the moment, they do not have a choice about when the general election will be; the sole decision about that sits with the Prime Minister. The Bill seeks to give that power to Members of this democratically elected House. I would have thought that my hon. Friend, as a champion of parliamentary control of the Executive, would welcome that proposition.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I can assure my hon. Friend that the real question is not whether the Prime Minister wants to call a general election, but what the state of the country is and whether there is a sense of urgency among the public at large. That can force a general election, irrespective of whether a Prime Minister wants to pull the plug.

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

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is simply not right. That is not the current constitutional position. The current position is that for a period of time during which a Government have the confidence of this House, the only person who decides whether there should be a general election—assuming that we have not reached the end of the Parliament—is the Prime Minister, who seeks a Dissolution from Her Majesty the Queen. Members of Parliament, unless they vote down the Government on a vote of confidence, do not have that power. The general public certainly do not have that power.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

The Minister’s proposition was a much disputed one. It was thought at one stage that Mr Major, when Prime Minister, was prepared to call a general election during the difficulties surrounding Maastricht. The argument put by people like Robert Rhodes James was that it was a matter for the Cabinet as a whole to give the Prime Minister the authority to go to the Queen—a more collective approach. The coarse person, the Back Bencher on the streets—or rather the Benches here—would argue that the Cabinet at the time would have thrown themselves in front of John Major’s car if he went to Buckingham palace, as the last thing the Conservative party could bear at that juncture was a general election. It is a process; that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone is talking about. The Prime Minister is not the only person who can determine a general election. That is the ebb and flow of real politics, which is what this House is about. That is why, as I am sure the Minister will understand, there is opposition to some of the propositions in the Bill.

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

I am not sure that I want to conjure up visions of Cabinet Ministers throwing themselves in front of prime ministerial cars, which is not a happy thought—[Interruption.] Some of the comments from Opposition Members are unworthy of them. Let me explain what I do not understand about my hon. Friend’s point. He is arguing, I think, for decisions about the timing of general elections to be a more collegiate effort, rather than just the choice of the Prime Minister—but that is exactly what the Bill does. It takes away from the Prime Minister the power to call a general election by asking the Queen for a Dissolution and gives that power to Members. Two thirds of them can choose to have an early election for any reason, including general concerns about the state of the country, which deals with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. Having this Bill in place would allow that to happen, which cannot be done today. The other way of bringing about an election is the Government losing a vote of confidence. That is why the Government believe that the Bill should be in place; it should not be up to each individual Parliament to decide whether the Bill should remain in force. That is why we oppose these sunset clauses.

We think that the real threat presented by the amendments is that they could create a scenario in which political parties, and specifically the Government party, could choose in each Parliament, even at its beginning, whether that Parliament should be a fixed-term one. As the Bill is currently drafted, both Houses would have to vote in favour of the Fixed-term Parliament Bill kicking into place at any time during the Parliament. I simply do not think that that is a very sensible proposition. It would mean that Governments would have a way of manipulating the timetable. We should think it through. If both Houses have to vote in favour of a motion for a fixed-term Parliament to be in place, a Government with a majority could simply refuse to pass that motion—and we would effectively have given back to the Prime Minister the ability to call an election. That would not be a positive step forward.

It is important to note that when this House and the other place were legislating for the fixed terms of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it was not thought appropriate to have sunset clauses. We did not give those legislatures the opportunity to pick and choose each time how long their terms of office should be. I do not believe that doing so makes sense now.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

When it comes to these Assemblies and other devolved organisations, we respect them, but the analogy the Minister is making could just as well be applied to a parish council.

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

That is not an analogy I would make with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. When this House made decisions about setting up those bodies, we did not think it appropriate to give them the power to pick and choose their term of office. We set it out in the legislation that set the bodies up.

I am curious to know what the supporters of the Lords amendment think would happen if the next Parliament decided that it did not want a fixed term. It is not very clear from the amendments, how exactly the mechanisms would work. I shall take Members through the Lords amendments shortly and explain how I think they would work.

It has been suggested that a sunset clause would ensure that the issue of fixed-term Parliaments and the merits of this particular Bill would be subject to post-legislative scrutiny. That is not necessary, however. This legislation has already been scrutinised by four Select Committees: the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Lords Constitution Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Delegated

Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. I am sure that any one of those Select Committees or another Select Committee will subject the Bill to some form of post-legislative scrutiny, which is something that the Government would welcome. I do not think that these sunset clauses, however, would lead to that type of sensible scrutiny.

I said that I would look at the effect of the Lords amendments on the working of the Bill. Lords amendment 9 talks about a resolution having to be

“approved by each House of Parliament”.

That is fairly straightforward. The most unclear provisions relate to section 7(4), stating that a number of parts of the Bill will have effect

“only until the first meeting of the… Parliament”,

which would then decide whether to bring those provisions in. The provisions on early elections and confidence votes would not be clear and it would not be clear how Parliament would be dissolved. The schedule, which has a number of consequential amendments, would also not be in force. The schedule, which repeals the Septennial Act and a whole load of other provisions, would effectively cease to be in force and, presumably, all the repeals and amendments would be unrepealed and unamended. We would then end up with a very complicated constitutional proposition.

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

Unless I misheard the Minister, he referred to section 7(4) of the Bill. I cannot find a section 7(4).

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

I am looking at the copy of the Bill as amended on Report from the House of Lords, which does have a section 7. It is the final provision section. It is the bit that is dealt with by one of the Lords amendments that we are debating. I think that the amendment will be confusing. It will make many of our constitutional provisions unclear. I do not believe that those who tabled the amendments and voted for them in the other place have fully thought through how they would work in practice.

Another important issue is the relationship that would be created between this House and the other place if the amendments stay in the Bill. The importance of establishing the primacy of this House came out clearly in our debate on the Government’s proposals on House of Lords reform. The amendments would give the House and the other place the ability to vote on whether we have a fixed-term Parliament, without going through the normal legislative process. That could lead to an unfortunate scenario in which this House voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion that we have a fixed-term Parliament and that the provisions of the Bill, if passed, come into force, while the currently unelected House failed to vote for the motion, so we would not have a fixed-term Parliament. Important decisions about elections in this country, fixed-term Parliaments, the confidence procedures and the ability to trigger early general elections would effectively be made by the unelected House, and that would diminish the power of elected Members.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 3:30 pm, 13th July 2011

The Minister’s example is completely wrong. If this House voted—on the basis of the Government’s and, therefore, the Prime Minister’s

majority—for a fixed-term Parliament, and the other place did not vote for a fixed-term Parliament, whether there would be an early election would be in the hands of the Prime Minister. The will of this House would always have carried.

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

The hon. Gentleman confuses the will of the House and the will of the Prime Minister. The scenario that I set out stands. If the other place had chosen not to vote for fixed-term Parliaments, we would not have a fixed-term Parliament, despite this House having voted in favour, and that would give back to the Prime Minister the ability solely to decide whether there should be an election. We would have taken powers away from Members of this House who had voted, perhaps overwhelmingly, to ensure that the Bill was in force. We would have been thwarted by their lordships. Given the importance to Members of the primacy of this House, that effectively moves power in the opposite direction, which Members will find unwelcome.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I appreciate that the Minister is a Minister of the Crown, but he would get into difficult territory if he suggested that the Prime Minister is a Prime Minister without the confidence of the House of Commons, which is more or less what he has just been saying.

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

That is not what I said at all. My specific point is about the relative powers of the two Houses, but the point stands that if we do not have a fixed-term Parliament, we give back to the Prime Minister the power to call an early election. To repeat my example, the amendments would mean that both Houses must vote positively in favour of resurrecting the provisions of the Bill. I want the other place also to be elected—I know that my hon. Friend does not—but under the amendments the elected House, despite having voted by an overwhelming margin, could be thwarted by the unelected House, and the provisions of the Bill would not be in force. The will of the House of Commons, having said that it did not want the Prime Minister to have the power to call an early election, and that it wanted that power to be held by Members of this House, would have been thwarted by the other place. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not agree with that.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for engaging in dialogue on this question, but the assumption, at any rate in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister, is that proposals for reform of the House of Lords will go through by the end of this Parliament. The arguments to which the Minister refers, therefore, will effectively expire when the arrangements for this fixed-year Parliament come to an end.

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

I disagree with my hon. Friend. Even if we successfully push our proposals through in their current form, and we have the first set of such elections in 2015, most Members of the other place will still be unelected. Secondly, regardless of how many Members of the other place are elected, we are talking about primacy. Effectively, the amendments would move power away from this House to the other place. Whatever one’s views about House of Lords reform, I picked up clearly from our earlier debate that most Members of

this place want it to be clear that this place has primacy over their lordships’ House. The amendments, perhaps inadvertently, would lead to a different situation.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

Under the Bill, a large number of Members of the House must vote for a Dissolution. The person who decides whether there is a general election is, therefore, the Leader of the Opposition, because if the Government and the Opposition want a Dissolution, it happens. Under the amendments, the House of Lords would effectively be taking power away from the Leader of the Opposition, who would be in a position to provide the numbers for a Dissolution.

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

I agree. The fact remains that we are taking powers away from this House and giving them to the other place. It has been clear to me from our earlier debates that that view is not widely shared in this House, and indeed, interestingly, it does not appear to be widely shared in the other place. As I observed from careful reading of the report of the debates there, many speakers were very concerned about the primacy of this House, which was good of them. They said that they did not want to damage it in any way. Plainly their support for the amendments was inadvertent; they may not have thought through the consequences fully. I therefore think it would be sensible for this House to disagree with their Lordships, and to give them an opportunity to reconsider their decision and return the Bill to the form in which it left this House.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I recognise the strength of the Minister’s arguments. The effect of the amendments, surely, would be to leave us with not a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, but a Fixable-term Parliaments Bill. We could get into a constitutional “fix” in trying to “fix” the term, with an elected Chamber voting one way and an—in all likelihood—still unelected Chamber voting another way. If that happened, what would be the default position?

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

I agree. The hon. Gentleman has put it very well. Under the Bill as the Government want to see it—this House having disagreed with their Lordships, and their Lordships having accepted that the Bill should remain as it is—its provisions would be in force unless and until a future Parliament changed them. It would be this House that would determine whether an early election should take place if two thirds of Members, that is, a broad consensus, were in favour of it—which returns us to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone about what would happen if there were a general view that the state of the nation was such that there should be an early election—or if the Government no longer had the confidence of this House. The other place would have no role in that process at all, which I think is right.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if the amendments were in force there would be a “fix” in each Parliament: each Government would effectively be able to choose whether to have a fixed-term Parliament, because they could block the motion passed by this House. Worse, it would not be a choice that the Houses took at the start of a Parliament, because the amendments make no provision for that. At any point during the Parliament, the two Houses, if they passed the motion, could suddenly convert the Parliament to a fixed term. That would be likely to lead to the position described by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, with people putting a fix in place to suit a particular short-term need.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does any provision in the Lords amendments or the Bill specify or restrict who can table such a motion in either House, and when or how many times it could be tabled again if whoever tables it does not succeed on the first occasion?

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

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on it. The provisions are completely silent about that. They do not say who would table the motion, or whether the same question could be continually repeated.

The amendments are not very well drafted. I think that they are wrong in principle, because under the normal procedure legislation that is passed stays in force unless it is changed by a future Parliament, but even if we liked the concept of a sunset provision, such a provision ought to be much better drafted and much more effective. This House can choose only between accepting the amendments and disagreeing with them, and I think I have almost made my case that we should disagree with them.

It has been argued that we are trying to bind future Parliaments. That is not what we are trying to do at all. We are merely trying to re-establish the normal constitutional position. We are passing legislation which we hope will become the established position, but if a future Parliament, perhaps the next one, decides that the fixed-term Parliament experiment—an experiment that is common to many countries around the world—has not been successful and has not led to better government, it will be perfectly free to pass another piece of legislation that repeals these measures either in full or in part. We do not have an arrangement whereby we “sunset” every piece of legislation, and an incoming Government then finds that the rules are unwritten and they can choose what those rules should be. That would not be a very sensible constitutional position.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Without going into all the questions relating to judicial supremacy and the claims of ultimate authority by certain members of the judiciary, I am afraid that through this measure and a number of others the Government have opened the door to the possibility—indeed the likelihood, as Lord Bingham made clear—of certain members of the Supreme Court interpreting legislation in a way that suits their ultimate authority, as they claim it.

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

Order. We are straying quite a long way from the amendment. I am sure the Minister was about to point that out.

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

I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend’s points are probably more relevant to the next group of amendments, when we will talk about adding some specific provisions to the Bill, so he might want to raise them then. If he does so, I shall be able to address them in an orderly way.

The Opposition supported the sunset provisions in the other place, and I anticipate that they will do so again today, so I want to point out why I think they would be wrong. Effectively, the sunset provisions drive a coach and horses through the principle of the Bill. On 24 November last year, Chris Bryant said:

“I want to reaffirm our commitment”

—the Labour party’s commitment—

“to fixed-term Parliaments. That means we have to lay down in statute that it is for the House, not the Prime Minister, to dissolve Parliament.”—[Hansard, 24 November 2010; Vol. 519, c. 328.]

I agree, but under these sunset provisions at the end of this Parliament we would give back to the Prime Minister the power to dissolve Parliament by seeking a Dissolution from Her Majesty the Queen. I do not think that that is in accordance with what the hon. Gentleman said then.

There are a number of other useful quotes. The Labour party manifesto of last year stated that

“we will legislate for Fixed Term Parliaments…We will let the people decide how to reform our institutions and our politics: changing the voting system and electing a second chamber to replace the House of Lords.”

I do not agree with the first, but I do agree with the second.

“But we will go further, introducing fixed-term parliaments”.

Furthermore, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath said that a vote for Labour was a vote for fixed-term Parliaments.

I accept that Labour did not win the election, but it seems to me that if the hon. Member for Rhondda is going to carry out the spirit of that commitment, all the people who voted Labour at the last election will expect him to vote in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. If he does not agree to disagree with their Lordships, he will not be carrying out that manifesto commitment.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

I have not read the Conservative party manifesto recently, but so far as I remember it did not contain a commitment to fixed-term Parliaments. Therefore, if the hon. Gentleman were to take his own advice, he would withdraw his support for the Bill.

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

The hon. Gentleman sets me up very nicely for my final quotation. In this Bill’s Second Reading debate—which took place a long time ago, on 13 September 2010, which goes to show that the Bill has enjoyed leisurely progress through both Houses with proper scrutiny in both Chambers—Mr Straw said:

“I have long been in favour of fixed terms. I could dig out correspondence I had with Margaret Thatcher in 1983 about fixed terms. The Labour party committed itself to fixed terms in the 1992 election. What typically happens—this is why I welcome the measure and why I wanted that commitment in our manifesto—is that parties in opposition that are in favour of fixed terms go off the boil on them when they come into government.”—[Hansard, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 645.]

Interestingly, we have done the opposite. We were not very keen on them in opposition, but we have become keener on them in government, and this was in our coalition agreement.

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

My comments seem to have provoked interest. I shall give way first to my hon. Friend Mr Shepherd.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am startled by my hon. Friend’s line of argument. I did toil through our election manifesto, and I saw no pledge or undertaking at all to have a fixed-term Parliament, and least of all a fixed-term Parliament for five years, so what is his line of argument?

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

My hon. Friend rightly says that we did not have a commitment to do this, but equally we had not promised not to do it. The case was made to us that there was a good case for fixed-term Parliaments, provision was made for them in the coalition agreement and we brought the measure before the House. When good arguments are made, wise Governments listen to them and introduce these very sensible measures. They do not contradict anything that we had in our manifesto. It is usual for Governments to introduce proposals that were not in their manifesto when sensible arguments are made for them. That is a perfectly sensible proposition.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 3:45 pm, 13th July 2011

I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will say that the sensible basis on which this amazing commitment has suddenly emerged is that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. So here we go again with the tail wagging the dog.

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

I would not characterise the relationship like that at all. A good case was made, and on this particular issue the Prime Minister has demonstrated tremendous leadership. He is the first Prime Minister to give up the power—a power that was his personally—to seek a Dissolution from Her Majesty the Queen. That improves our arrangements, because we now know the date of the election and so for the last year of this Parliament we will not have the “will he, won’t he” proposition, where everyone is trying to second-guess when the election will be and people are arguing about when the best time is for the party or parties in government. That is an incredibly powerful step forward and it is very welcome.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

The current system has served us pretty well for 350 years. The Minister cites other Parliaments around the world that have been established for perhaps 20 or 30 years at best. Perhaps they would be best advised to follow our example, as opposed to us following their example.

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

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I do not believe that the general public support the exercise that we go through in the run-up to the end of a Parliament, where we enter the “will he, won’t he” argument. We all know—this came out clearly in the debate in the other place from some who had been close to these decisions—that the decision that is taken, perfectly honourably, is about how best the Prime Minister can choose the date to maximise the chance of their party being re-elected. I simply do not think that that is a good basis on which the decision should be made, and I think that our approach is an improvement.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

I support the Minister’s point. Even if it is Parliaments around the world that are only 20 or 30 years old that have adopted fixed-term Parliaments, it is interesting that they did not adopt the system that we have here, despite its longevity. They probably saw the errors in our system and were not going to start from here when deciding how to run their parliamentary terms.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said, when this House decided to legislate to set up the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it did not think that it was right to have variable terms; it decided that it was sensible to have fixed terms. If this House thought that that was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us.

Let me finish by reading out the following quote from the right hon. Member for Blackburn. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central rightly says that I have already read out the quote, but I wanted to set out the conclusion that the Labour party should draw from it. The right hon. Gentleman said that

“parties in opposition that are in favour of fixed terms go off the boil on them when they come into government.” —[Hansard, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 645.]

The Labour party is in danger of doing the opposite. It is in danger of being committed to this proposition when it was in government and then going off the boil on it when in opposition. The party should reconsider. In the time before the House is asked to make a decision on this, I hope that the Labour party will decide that we should disagree with their lordships on this group of amendments.

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

I am afraid that the Minister did not impress me with his arguments. In particular, he referred to the fact that the Conservative manifesto did not contain anything about introducing fixed-term Parliaments and then said that when good arguments come along people should bow to them. As far as I can see, the only good argument that came along was that the Liberal Democrats would not support the Government unless there was a fixed-term Parliament element in the coalition agreement. So the only reason why we have this Bill, particularly in its current form, is because of the attempt to create the coalition and then to keep it going for five years.

The Minister then tried to tease me a little with the idea that the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, said that he wanted people who voted for Labour to be voting for fixed-term Parliaments. This amendment would allow us to vote in every Parliament for fixed-term Parliaments, so it gives more opportunities for people to vote for them, rather than fewer.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does the shadow Minister agree that the Bill has all the elements of an attempt to achieve a sort of permanent coalition arrangement? In fact, if one were to look at the current state of affairs, one might feel some sympathy for those on our side of the House who have found as a result of the mistakes that have been made by them and by others that they are now low in the polls and that the 56 seats that they won at the last general election might by all accounts be fewer than 20 if those opinion polls were to be believed.

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

I think I agree with that, but I am not entirely sure. The bit I agreed with was in feeling sympathy for those on the Government side of the House.

The three amendments we are discussing come as a package. In essence, they are all there to do the same thing: to say that the present arrangements will remain, so that the coalition gets to hold itself together until to 2015, but that after the next general election and at any subsequent creation of a new Parliament, unless other legislation is brought in, there would have to be a vote in both Houses for that system to remain in place. I shall come to the issue of both Houses in a moment.

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

I was going to come to that matter in a few moments, but if the Minister wants me to come to it now I will of course give way.

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

I wanted to question something the hon. Gentleman said. He says that at the start of each Parliament there would have to be such a motion, but that is not what the amendments say. They leave it completely open for that to happen at any point during the Parliament, and I think that would be deeply unsatisfactory.

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

The Minister is absolutely right. That was a small slip of mine and the vote could happen at any time. Any Government worth their salt would without a doubt table such a motion at the beginning of the Parliament so that there was clarity.

We should also know that Lords amendment 1 was not tabled by the Labour party. It was tabled by Lord Pannick with the support of Lady Boothroyd, Lord Butler and Lord Armstrong. Their arguments carried quite a lot of weight with the House—clearly, they carried enough weight to win the vote. Lord Pannick said when moving the amendment:

“The purpose of the amendments is to address the deep unease on all sides of the House, as expressed at Second Reading and in Committee, as to whether it is appropriate to confine the circumstances in which a general election may be called within a five-year term.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 10 May 2011; Vol. 727, c. 822.]

There has been that level of discomfort and unease in this House, too, although it was more marked down the other end. Lord Pannick also referred to the “constitutional damage” that all this might create and called the whole Bill an “unhappy Bill”. I have some sympathy with him.

It is true that I have previously commented—and I stand by those comments—that the Labour party is committed to fixed-term Parliaments. However, we think the right way to introduce legislation on something as constitutionally significant as changing the way in which a general election is called is to engage in consultation with all the parties in this House before tabling a Bill and to introduce pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill. If the Minister had chosen to go down that route, he would have had a great deal of co-operation from Opposition Members and we would have ended up with a better piece of legislation. One issue that we might have been able to address in such circumstances is whether it is right to make the change through legislation or Standing Order, which might well have saved us from the danger of the question of calling a general election at any time being justiciable in the courts. Lord Pannick also made that point. He said that, as there had been no pre-legislative scrutiny, it was important that after a future general election there was an opportunity for each House to consider the matter again.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance, Belfast East

One definition of “fix” is:

“To place securely; make stable or firm”.

Surely the Lords amendment does the reverse on two counts, in that it neither makes it the fixed position that there will be fixed-term Parliament nor sets in stone the time at which that decision would be taken by future Parliaments. What it creates is the opposite of “fixed”; it creates an insecure situation.

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

My contention and, I think, Lord Pannick’s contention is that this is a fix in a different way, because it is essentially rigging the constitution so as to make it possible for the coalition to remain in government until 2015—against the manifesto commitment.

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

Let me finish my point. Lord Pannick also cited the Constitution Committee in the House of Lords, which said:

“the origins and content of this Bill owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand.”

I think their lordships were right. I will now give way to my hon. Friend Mark Durkan and then to Naomi Long, who is slightly my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Earlier, he indicated to the Minister that he assumed that the resolution provided for under the amendment would be moved at the start of a Parliament on the basis that any Government worth their salt would do it then. Can he tell us what he believes any Opposition worth their salt would do in relation to such a resolution? Would not the scenario that he is arguing for, of a Government doing that at the start of a Parliament, mean that the very unedifying spectacle that we have seen in this Parliament of a Government fixing the term to suit themselves would happen in every Parliament?

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

I suppose it is true that every Opposition will always want to take an opportunity to have an early general election. The nature of opposition means wanting to become the Government, so the Opposition would want the chance to have a general election. I think that is the drift of what my hon. Friend said. As I have said, I think we would have a better piece of legislation if we had had pre-legislative scrutiny and had been able to sit around a table, not just with the main parties but with the smaller, minority parties too.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance, Belfast East

On the issue of fixing, would it not appear to be more of a fix if the Bill affected only one Parliament in which we happen to have a coalition and then fell into abeyance and had to be resurrected for future Parliaments than if the system were changed to introduce fixed-term Parliaments on a permanent basis, thereby requiring future Governments to rescind that decision if they wanted to change it?

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

No, I do not accept that, because the experience over the rather sad course of this Bill has been that there has been no consultation with the Opposition about a major constitutional change. Mr Walker said earlier that the system has lasted for 300 years, but I do not think it has been a good system or that it has been perfect for the British constitution, because it has on occasion allowed too much power for a Prime Minister to call a general election at his or her—well, very rarely at her—convenience. In that regard, it is better that we should proceed in a different direction. For us the key issue is whether a term should be four or five years.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

No system is perfect, but we have had a fairly dynamic democracy over the past 350 years and by fixing parliamentary terms we will lose some of that dynamism.

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

I have sympathy with that argument, but I also think that this is one of the changes towards a fixed-term Parliament that would assist in that and would be another part of the steady progress of parliamentary evolution to which he referred.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are really interesting historical analogies? I am thinking of the vote of 311 to 310 that led to Lady Thatcher’s becoming Prime Minister and of the debate after Munich on 10 May 1940. If we had had fixed-term Parliaments at those times, the whole thing would have been completely undermined despite the fact that the country was in uproar and wanted change. That would have been the case with a fixed-term Parliament of the kind that he wants as well as with one of five years.

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

No, I disagree, but we will come to that issue when we debate the second set of amendments about the measures concerning early general election. We have some disagreements with the Government, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but that is a matter for us to debate later.

One of the other problems that I have with the way the Bill is drafted and why we support the amendments that have come from their lordships is that I do not think anybody ever sat down and thought, “We have elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Do we want to align them with the elections here, or do we want to make sure that they fall on a different date?” That would have been going to constitutional first principles. What we have ended up with is adjusting the election dates for all those other assemblies. We have allowed them, in effect, to decide when their next elections will be, extending to five years, yet it may be that we have an early general election, so they will not need to go to five-year terms. We are tinkering on the back of a fag packet and that is not a good way of proceeding in relation to the constitution.

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

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not, as I am keen to conclude my remarks.

The Minister asked whether both Houses should decide. That goes to the heart of the matter. Yes, we believe that both Houses should decide, but if the Minister had wanted to change that, he could have tabled an amendment in lieu of the Lords amendment, which could have said that just as in the provisions on an early general election, there would be a vote in one House—this House. There could have been a vote in this House on whether it was a fixed-term Parliament. The Government’s response tries to bind a future Parliament in an inappropriate way. I think that is a mistake, so we will support the Lords amendment.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

It is this House that determines who the Government are. This is the majority House. As we know, the upper House is a hereditary or semi-hereditary Chamber. Even under the proposals for election, it will not be the majority House. It is therefore proper and responsible that this Chamber should determine whether there should be a fixed-term Parliament. That is not the business of the upper House. The decision has to be made in this House.

The only question to debate is whether it is the Prime Minister who makes the decision or the House. Historically, it has been the Prime Minister. We have had a constitutional change. I am a conservative with a small c and I do not generally like change, but one has to acknowledge the fact that in order to command a majority in the House, the measure is part of the deal. That is a good reason for doing it. If that was not part of the deal, one would not necessarily be in government and doing many other good things for the country under our programme.

We all know that Prime Ministers lose the confidence of the House. There are occasions when Prime Ministers are challenged, and one of the things that bolsters unpopular Prime Ministers is the threat of Dissolution. It is up to them. They can throw the cards up in the air and call a Dissolution, even if they lose the confidence of their own party. That has always been one reason why Prime Ministers have stayed in Downing street when there was good reason for moving them out and having a vote of no confidence in a political party.

The other factor, which is one of the different features of modern politics, is that there are now more parties in the House—we have the Greens in this Parliament—more of a fracture in the current political system and more regional parties. It will probably be more difficult in the longer term for a party always to be confident of a majority in the House. My hon. Friend Mr Cash is right. Coalitions may be more a part of the future than some of us who prefer majority government would like to think.

The Government’s position is tailored to that situation, so I will support what they are doing today. Circumstances have changed, and if one has to make a decision, it is better that political parties and the usual channels in the House determine a Dissolution than an unpopular Prime Minister who may have a different agenda from others in the Chamber.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I am delighted to be able to agree with the thrust of the remarks of Mr Syms in relation to the key effect of the Lords amendments, which would extend the power of the House of Lords as it now stands and in whatever future shape it takes, by making sure that the upper House was in a position of dual control with this House on whether there was a fixed-term Parliament. We know from sentiments already expressed in that House—echoed many times in this House—that there is opposition to serious proposals on Lords reform, and in those circumstances I would certainly not indulge any extension of their powers or ability to trespass on the primacy of this House, which is exactly what the amendments would do.

A number of weeks ago Chris Bryant rightly lampooned the democratic credentials of the other Chamber, and yet now he wants to extend its control over the democratic proprieties of this Chamber and over whether there is certainty on when there will be a general election. I fully agree with him that those of us who believe in fixed-term Parliaments face a predicament with the Bill, because many of us believe that four years is the natural term for a Parliament. It was the natural term that this Parliament chose for the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, and it was right that they were comfortable with it, but because Parliament is opting for five years, those assemblies will also have to shift to five years, which I do not believe is the natural rhythm for fixed terms.

Nevertheless, it would be a bit much for someone like me to use the fact that I believe in four-year terms, in addition to believing in fixed-term Parliaments, to vote for rupturing the nature of the Bill. As someone who is proudly in the Irish Labour tradition, I have great regard for Jim Larkin, who once said that the purpose of politics was to keep narrowing the gap between what is and what ought to be. I believe in fixed-term Parliaments. Unfortunately, the only choice we now have is five-year terms. In future, I hope that other parties will be elected with a mandate to alter that fixed term to four years and that future Parliaments will do that, but I believe that we will reach that stage quicker by voting for fixed-term Parliaments now and amending the length of the term in future. If instead we get to the meaningless point of having a Bill that is a fixed-term Parliaments Bill only in name, rather like the two-hour dry cleaners that tells customers to come back next Tuesday because “two-hour dry cleaners” is just the name of the shop, that Bill will not fulfil its purpose in any real way.

In relation to the amendments, there is a curious idea that both Chambers would decide on whether there would be a fixed term, but there is uncertainty on when those resolutions would be laid and who would lay them. The references to the Prime Minister in some of the amendments relate only to moving the date of an election back by up to two months, and I think that some people have misread that and think that it means that the resolution would have to come from the Prime Minister, but it would not. It seems that we would be left with a curious situation in which anyone could seek at any time to move such a resolution in either Chamber and create various difficulties that would simply add to the political mess and to the uncertainty on whether we have fixed terms.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda in his criticism of the Bill’s provenance and the fact that it came about not to fix the term of Parliament, but to fix this Government. It was intended to create a fixed-term Government and a fix for this Parliament. For that reason it is wrong and it is bad. However, the amendments would have the effect of prescribing legislation that would have every Parliament begin with a Government using their majority to fix the term in a way that suited them. He said that any Government worth their salt would do that early on in the term, and presuming that an Opposition worth their salt would oppose it, we are left asking what the point would be and what such legislation would achieve, other than an unedifying procedure each time a recently elected Government appear to fix the terms on which they will govern which the Opposition resist. The whole idea of a fixed-term Parliament Bill is to ensure that there is no political speculation or contention on those issues. Looking at the nature of some of the other clauses and amendments, I do not believe that the Prime Minister is ceding as much power as some hon. Members have said.

This is an unusual and uncomfortable experience for me, but I concur with the Government on these Lords amendments. Unfortunately, on this occasion I have to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda while fully agreeing with his basic, continuing underlying criticism of some of the background to the Bill.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I agree with a lot of the points made by Mark Durkan. I am conscious that this a Bill to fix a Parliament: that is the purpose behind it, plain and simple. The difficulty that the House of Lords faced and that we face in this House—it is the reason I voted against the Bill on Second Reading and otherwise—is the incoherence of the constitutional change that these amendments, to some extent, address.

We are embarked on almost reckless constitutional change with no overall coherent view of what we want. I know what I want, and I rather suspect that the hon. Member for Foyle knows what he wants—a democratically elected, accountable House of Lords. That raises all sorts of subsidiary questions as to which has primacy and which does not. We have here a fix, without any view as to what the constitution is going to be, that has involved nothing other than the coalition partners bringing forward a Bill that contains certain propositions that do not relate. I appreciate that we have had all the debates about four years as opposed to five years and the rhythm of the process. We have had the AV referendum, which was again unrelated to how the constitution was going to look.

That is why the Lords tabled these amendments. In a sense, they are not serious amendments—serious in the sense of how they prick this process and bring in a wider consideration of what the constitution should be, to whom is it accountable, and how we make these changes. Essentially, this fixed-term Parliament proposal is “back of the envelope”. Do we really want a five-year fixed term when we might have had only four years? I think that that was the position of the Labour party in its manifesto, and the position of the Liberal Democrats. The joyous thing about it is that we did not have a view, other than against, in our election manifesto.

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

I want to pick my hon. Friend up on his point that this has been done on the back of a fag packet.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I did not say that—I said an envelope.

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

Yes, forgive me—it was Chris Bryant who said it was a fag packet. This Bill was introduced in July last year. It was fully debated in this House and in the other place, and it is now almost a year later. One cannot in any sense agree with my hon. Friend’s proposition that the parliamentary debate on and scrutiny of this Bill has not been thorough and well thought through.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am sorry, but my point was not as the Minister so kindly describes it. My point was that we are talking about a constitution. The problem for everyone, not only in this Chamber but out there too—the people—is what are the forms and proper norms by which we should conduct our business, electorally or otherwise.

Now these piecemeal bits are coming forward whereby the Lords make the absurd proposition that it should have a role, as an unelected House, in determining when an election should be. That is clearly absurd, and to that extent I am sympathetic to the Government. However, I am very opposed to a five-year Parliament. There has been no testing on that. A parliamentary majority in this House will now determine that we have a new form of constitution that the hon. Member for Foyle is apparently happy about on the basis that it is only temporary and we might have a different, and therefore proper and better, version at a later stage. We have to deal with where we are here and now. We want a proper constitution, I would argue. I think that that is the position of the Labour party. I know that a good many Government Members also want a constitution that stands the test of time. No one from outside has really been invited into the supposed consultation.

The Deputy Prime Minister has not even come to argue for his position. That truly trivialises the whole process. I have gone on about that before. However much I am thrilled with the presence of the Minister, it is absurd that those who make these propositions cannot come here and argue for them.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 4:15 pm, 13th July 2011

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about this matter, but he is drifting from the point of the Lords amendments. I know that he is setting the context, but that context is getting a little too wide. I would like him to narrow his speech back to the amendments.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am trying to use the amendments to explain and understand what the Lords are doing. I appreciate that I may be going too wide, and I am sorry if that is so, but that is the purpose behind what I am doing. It is in that context that I am going to vote for the Lords amendments. They are absurd; there is no question about that in my mind. It is absolutely absurd that the Lords, who are not democratically elected, should be setting out such amendments. The very writing of the amendments is extraordinary for a place that we are told is full of very intellectual and clever complacents. It is extraordinary that they should even be looking into this. However, I did not open this discussion; the coalition opened it, and it did not do so in a rational or reasonable way. I am trying to find an argument to support the amendment so that I can vote against what is an improper process. It is as simple as that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I want those on the Government Front Bench to understand my point. They are careering on. They held an AV referendum, but apropos of what—whether one was for it or agin it? I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that AV is not on the amendment paper.

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

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is out of order. He is making points directly to his party. I would appreciate it if he kept to the amendments before us and did not range far and wide. There are other Members still to speak and other amendments still to cover. I know that he knows he is out of order because he keeps telling me that he is. I have been very generous to him, but it stops now. Please come back to the amendments.

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I am obliged for the courteous and pleasant way in which that was said. Mirror, mirror on the wall, I know that I am—[ Laughter. ]

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I apologise for missing the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. I wonder whether I may risk leading him astray. How does he think a fixed five-year term for this House stands alongside the proposals for a 15-year term for some peers in the other place?

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

Order. Mr Shepherd and I can both guess whether he should go down that line. I think the answer is that he should not. Can he please come back to the amendments?

Photo of Richard Shepherd Richard Shepherd Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker. There was no way that I was going to rise to that fly. We will get back to the substance of the matter.

These are ridiculous proposals from the House of Lords—on that I agree. To that extent I am with the body of the House, which, I hope, feels that this is almost an impertinence. That impertinence is qualified, of course, by the fact that the Lords are the second Chamber, and that as it stands—other than in matters of money, as I understand it—they have all the rights of a second Chamber to make or change legislation. They are wrong to table the amendment, but they are right in the spirit of it. I hope that it is in order to suggest such a thing. My proposition is that they are right in the spirit of it because it is the only way in which they can attack this matter.

I hope that this cheerful Chamber will look askance at the Minister and his colleague, the Deputy Leader of the House, who are sitting on the Front Bench and trying to seduce us into thinking that there is some immaculate constitutional conception behind the Bill. There is not. It is the raw politics of “We want to be there for five years, in the hope that something turns up at the end of the fifth year”. That is what it is about, and we know it. I urge the House to vote for the Lords amendment, and damn them.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Conservative, Broxbourne

Fixed-term Parliaments: constitutional vandalism.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

This was not in our manifesto. The people who voted for us certainly did not vote for fixed-term Parliaments.

In 1940, as I have said, the Government won the vote in May, but the public would not countenance that Government remaining in power for another day. That was what got rid of Neville Chamberlain, and Leo Amery said:

“In the name of God, go.”—[Hansard, 7 May 1940; Vol. 360, c. 1150.]

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

There was a similar example in the Cromwellian period. There are great events taking place in the world today, and the whole question of the sustainability of government ultimately depends on the continuing will of the people as a whole. The idea of fixed-term Parliaments is intrinsically wrong, because it defies the gravity of the views of the public at large. If the public were to turn against fixed-term Parliaments, under the Bill they could not succeed because fixed-term Parliaments would have been entrenched by statute, which would be upheld by the judiciary. That is fundamentally an attack on our sovereignty and the sovereignty of the people of this country. That is why I object so strongly to the whole idea of fixed-term Parliaments, whether of five years or four. It is unconstitutional, wrong and prevents the people from being able to demand a general election irrespective of the views of a Prime Minister or a coalition that is cobbled together despite the views expressed in the respective manifestos.

Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.

The House divided:

Ayes 312, Noes 243.

Division number 326 Fixed Term Parliaments Bill — Clause 1 — Both Houses of Parliament to Approve General Election Date

A majority of MPs voted against requiring a resolution of both Houses of Parliament to approve the date of a general election.

Aye: 311 MPs

No: 241 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 93 MPs

Abstained: 1 MP

Absents: A-Z by last name

Abstaineds: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Lords amendment 1 disagreed to.

Lords amendment 2 disagreed to.

Lords amendment 3 agreed to.

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

I beg to move, That this House
agrees with Lords amendment 4.

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

These amendments were moved in the other place and I want the House to agree to them, but I shall take a little time to explain why. One of them is particularly significant, because it replaces clause 2 with a completely new clause 2. Hon. Members will remember from our earlier debates that clause 2 is particularly significant because it contains all the provisions for early elections, in the context either of two thirds of the House choosing to hold one or of a vote of no confidence. It is therefore worth explaining to the House what we are proposing.

Lords amendment 4 deals with the powers in the Bill for the Prime Minister to alter the date of an election in an emergency—[ Interruption. ]

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

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I am finding it rather difficult to hear him, because there are a lot of private conversations going on. I ask Members to listen to the Minister. The sooner we deal with this business, the sooner we can move on to the next.

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

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Lords amendment 4 leaves out the “earlier or” provision. When we considered the Bill originally, it contained provisions for the Prime Minister to vary the date of an election, by moving it either forward or back by two months. In our debates in the Commons, many Members identified instances in which moving the date back would make sense, such as the outbreak of foot and mouth in 2001, but no one could think of any good reasons for moving an election to an earlier date. Similar points were made in the other place and amendments were tabled to remove the provision to move an election to an earlier date. We think that that is sensible. If there were a general consensus that we needed to hold an election at an earlier date, we could of course use the provisions in clause 2 and the House could vote to enable that to happen. The power to move an election forward therefore seems unnecessary, and Lords amendment 4 deals with that.

Lords amendment 5 also deals with clause 1(5) of the Bill. The Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee recommended that, when seeking to vary the date of an election under the power in clause 1(5), a Prime Minister should lay a statement before both Houses setting out the reasons for proposing the variance of the date. The Government accept that that recommendation would enhance the transparency of the exercise of that power, and the amendment would implement the Committee’s recommendation.

Lords amendment 6 is the most significant in the group. It was supported by the Government in the other place, and it was tabled following consultation with two former Speakers of this House: the noble Baroness Boothroyd and the noble Lord Martin of Springburn. It also had support from Labour Back Benchers and from Cross Benchers. It is significant because it substitutes an alternative version of clause 2, setting out the exact forms of motions of confidence and no confidence for the purposes of the Bill. The amendment retains the original architecture of the clause, and the two triggers for an early general election—namely, that the House may vote for an early Dissolution with the support of two thirds of all Members, and that a vote of no confidence may ultimately trigger and early general election.

We had much debate of an important topic at an earlier stage of the Bill and earlier today when my hon. Friend Mr Shepherd suggested that what we were doing was changing the constitution. It is worth reminding the House that following a vote of no confidence in a Government, there is currently a dual convention—that the Prime Minister either resigns or calls a general election. That dual convention was set out in a recent book of Professor Vernon Bogdanor, who Members who have attended these debates will remember was my tutor. On many occasions, Professor Bogdanor has been quoted against me; he and I have not always agreed. In this particular case, I am pleased to be able to quote him in support of my arguments.

In his book, Professor Bogdanor sets out the view that the no-confidence votes of January and October 1924 are examples of the dual convention, which is supported by the revised clause 2. He says:

“In the past, a no confidence vote would lead to a dissolution only if there was no viable alternative government within Parliament. Otherwise, the Prime Minister would resign, and the alternative government would take office.”

As we know, the vote of no confidence in the Baldwin Government of January 1924 led to the formation of the MacDonald Government without a fresh election taking place. In his book, Professor Bogdanor also cites what happened when the October 1924 no-confidence motion took place, stating:

George V, before granting what would be the third dissolution in two years, inquired, through his Private Secretary, of the two opposition leaders, Baldwin and Asquith, whether they were prepared to form an alternative government. Only after receiving a negative answer and only when it was clear that no alternative government was available did George V agree to a dissolution”.

Those events show the importance of allowing time to seek alternatives before resolving to call an election. That was the point that my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Mr Cash) and for Aldridge-Brownhills were making in the debate on the earlier group of amendments. It explains why there was a 14-day period in the original clause 2 and why it is important that the same 14-day period remains in the newer clause 2.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 4:45 pm, 13th July 2011

This 14-day period is simply a ruse, cobbled together by moving various Ministers around, in order simply to keep the existing Government in power. If a Government have a confidence motion and lose it by a majority of one, that is it—as happened with Lady Thatcher when a motion was passed by 311 to 310. That was the end of it; then a general election, leading to another Government, took place. That is how the system should function—the rest of it just cobbled together, as I say, for the sake of keeping a coalition moving under all circumstances. I am sure that the Prime Minister’s tutor, Vernon Bogdanor—also the Minister’s tutor—could have explained all that to him.

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

My hon. Friend is simply not right. We have had this debate before. It is important because it relates to the revised clause 2, brought about by one of the Lords amendments, which refers to a 14-day period. I know that Chris Bryant supported it strongly when we debated it in Committee and on Report. Indeed, the Opposition supported our proposition when we voted against an amendment that I believe my hon. Friends had tabled.

Two alternatives can take place. I know this 1924 example goes back a bit, but it is one of the scenarios that can happen. Of course, that did not happen in 1979, but that was because we were at the tail-end of a Parliament, so the general election took place. If a vote of confidence were lost early in a Parliament, the situation I described could occur.

Another important issue came up here and in the other place when the rationale for clause 2 was debated. The 14-day period is not mandatory; it is the maximum period that can apply. If the Government had lost a vote of confidence and there were a general consensus that the country should move immediately to a general election, there would be nothing to stop the Government putting down a motion for an early Dissolution. A vote on it could happen and the general election could be triggered immediately. I am not sure that that argument came out strongly in the other place; that is why it is worth putting it on the record.

We listened carefully to the concerns expressed in the other place about clause 2. We also conducted meetings with the two former Speakers, as I mentioned. We listened and made the amendment. Opposition Members will be pleased that the amendment has been made. The hon. Member for Rhondda said that as we were abolishing the Prime Minister’s right to dissolve Parliament, and placing that right in the hands of Parliament, it would be better to state in the Bill, in clear language, what constitutes a motion of no confidence, so that there can be no doubt.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset

Will the Minister explain a couple of things? First, is there another example in legislation of a motion being laid down for Parliament to follow, or is it an innovation? Secondly, who will determine whether the motion has been passed in the correct form? Will it be a matter for the courts?

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

Let me develop my argument, and I will cover the points raised by my hon. Friend. The concern in the other place about the original drafting of clause 2 was raised particularly by the two former Speakers, who felt that not having specific motions laid down, and requiring the Speaker to certify that votes of no confidence had been lost, would draw the Speaker into controversy. This House and the other place were happy that there was no issue about privilege and the courts trespassing into decisions of the House, but it was felt that there was a risk of the Speaker being drawn into controversy. The Government accepted the other place’s view that the language of the motion should be set out clearly.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the Minister and to you, but given the seriousness of the matter I wish to raise I must do so urgently. The Guardian newspaper has just issued a statement saying:

“The prime minister’s account of why he failed to act on the information we passed his office in February 2010 is highly misleading.”

Have you had notice of an urgent response from the Prime Minister so that he can put the matter right at the Dispatch Box?

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

Comments that are made outside the House are not the responsibility of the Chair. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that there is a question of privilege, I would advise him that he must write to the Speaker. It is not a matter for me now.

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

I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The new version of clause 2 set out in the amendment spells out the exact wording of motions of no confidence, motions of confidence, and motions for an early dissolution. Whether the conditions have been met would therefore be plain for everyone to see, and it would be clear from the

Votes and Proceedings and the

Journal

, and the Speaker would not need to be drawn into certifying whether the motions had been passed. That was the reason why the amendment was supported by the former Speakers, the Opposition and the other place. The amendment delivers what we had originally intended—that the power to trigger an early dissolution should lie with this House—but adds clarity and does not risk drawing the Speaker into controversy.

Amendments 7 and 8 are very important, especially for those Members who represent parts of the United Kingdom with devolved legislatures. When the Bill left this House, I told Members that we were in discussions with the parties in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly about how to deal with the coincidence of elections in 2015. I wrote to the Presiding Officers of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on 17 February, and proposed that if they passed a resolution with the support of at least two thirds of their Members, ensuring that there was consensus across the parties, we would agree to legislate to move the dates of the 2015 Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly general elections up to one year later. The Scottish Parliament passed a unanimous motion on 3 March confirming that it wished the UK Government to bring forward a provision to defer the 2015 election to 5 May 2016, and a similar motion was passed by the Welsh Assembly on 16 March.

We have said that if the House accepts the amendments, in the longer term we will conduct a detailed assessment—this issue arose during the debate on the earlier group of amendments—of the implications of the two sets of elections coinciding at a later date. Once we have conducted that assessment, if we think that there is a case for changing the cycle of elections, we will carry out a public consultation in Scotland and Wales on whether the devolved legislatures should be subject to permanent five-year terms.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does the Minister not agree that, whether we adopted the original proposals in the Bill or the proposals of the former Speakers and others, the matter would be justiciable? The Speaker would indeed be drawn into controversy, but there would also be a risk of the whole question being adjudicated by the courts.

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

We debated the issues of privilege, justiciability and whether the courts would seek to intervene in these matters at length in Committee and on Report, and they were also debated in the other place. I think that the general view was that the risk of intervention by the courts was very slight. It did not seem to concern Members of either House, although I accept that my hon. Friend still has concerns about it.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

The Clerk of the House, in his careful consideration of the issue, took the view, very strongly, that it would lead to justiciability. That is not just the view of one humble Back Bencher; it is also the view of the Clerk of the House, to whom fulsome tributes were paid yesterday for his wise advice.

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

I recognise that. The Government set out our reasons for disagreeing with that view, and I believe that their case was accepted by Members of both Houses. We have already debated the matter at length, and I do not think that there is a feeling that we should resurrect that debate now.

In Northern Ireland, there will be consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive and all the political parties, which will begin when the Northern Ireland Office has received reports from both the chief electoral officer and the Electoral Commission on the May 2011 polls, which involved three combined elections. The chief electoral officer’s report has just been received and is being examined by officials, and the report of the Electoral Commission is expected to be received shortly.

Given that the amendments were accepted in the other place and there was a fair degree of consensus, I urge Members to agree with the Lords.

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

I broadly agree with what the Government have said. I would point out, however, that the Government, and the Minister himself, have developed a rather irritating habit of opposing measures at this end of the building and then agreeing with them at the other end. That is bad for the way in which we conduct our business in this House. It applies particularly to the replacement for clause 2, in Lords amendment 6. All the changes in these amendments were contained in amendments that we tabled at this end of the building—

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

I will not give way to the Minister, I am afraid.

The Minister chose to oppose the amendments in this House, and then accept them in the other Chamber.

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

I am not going to give way to the Minister. He has spoken plenty.

This is the second occasion on which the Minister has done that today. This morning he tabled a written ministerial statement that basically consisted of an amendment that he voted against during our debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I wish he would stop doing it.

All I will say to the Minister about the improved clause 2 is that part of it, the “two-thirds majority” provision, remains foolhardy. Requiring a special majority to secure something constitutes a complete change in the practices of the House. It is also completely unnecessary, because it is almost inconceivable that on any occasion on which the Government tabled a motion for an early general election, the Opposition would not agree with it. There would always be a two-thirds majority. Let me say to Liberal Democrat Members who may think that that would protect them if the Prime Minister opted for an early general election before the planned date for the next general election, that it will do no such thing.

Lords amendment 4 agreed to.

Lords amendments 5 to 8 agreed to.

Lords amendment 9 disagreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to their amendments;

That Mr Mark Harper, Mr Philip Dunne, Chris Bryant, Jonathan Reynolds and Mr Mark Williams be members of the Committee;

That Mr Mark Harper be the Chair of the Committee;

That three be the quorum of the Committee.

That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Mr Goodwill.)

Question agreed to.

Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords .

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 5:00 pm, 13th July 2011

Order. I now have to announce the results of Divisions deferred from a previous day. On the question relating to the Equality Act work on ships, the Ayes were 316 and the Noes were 233, so the Ayes have it. On the question relating to the Equality Act duties on public authorities, the Ayes were 316 and the Noes were 230, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division list s are publishe d at the end of today’ s debates.]