Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 8 September 2011.

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Consideration of Lords message

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 1:08, 8 September 2011

I beg to move, That this House
insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments 1, 2 and 9 but proposes the following amendment to the Bill in lieu of those amendments:—

(a) Page 3, line 23, at end insert—

‘(4) The Prime Minister must make arrangements—

(a) for a committee to carry out a review of the operation of this Act and, if appropriate in consequence of its findings, to make recommendations for the repeal or amendment of this Act, and

(b) for the publication of the committee's findings and recommendations (if any).

(5) A majority of the members of the committee are to be members of the House of Commons.

(6) Arrangements under subsection (4)(a) are to be made no earlier than 1 June 2020 and no later than 30 November 2020.’.

The Government have been prepared, both in this House and the other place, to consider and support amendments that improve the provisions of the Bill. That is the normal process for refining and agreeing legislation. However—again, quite normally—we have consistently opposed amendments that would wreck the Bill. Members of this House and those in the other place have had a chance to debate the Bill at length, and one issue remains outstanding: whether or not there should be a sunset clause. Some have called it as a sunrise clause, and it was referred to in the other place as a Lazarus clause.

We have discussed Lord Pannick’s amendments—which inserted the sunset clause—before, and they were roundly defeated by 312 votes to 243, because they offended against the principle of the Bill: that parliamentary terms should be of a fixed length, and that the legislation should apply to each Parliament in the normal way unless repealed through the normal considered legislative process.

The Bill as we would have it rightly does not attempt to entrench parliamentary terms. If a future Parliament wishes to move away from fixed terms, it may of course do so by either amending or repealing the legislation. We have, however, maintained consistently that a constitutional change such as a move towards or away from fixed-term Parliaments is not a small matter, and that it should be subject to the full scrutiny of Parliament, as this Bill has indeed been. In contrast, the sunset amendments passed by their lordships would switch fixed terms on and off like a light switch, defaulting to non-fixed terms if a simple resolution failed to be tabled or, if it is passed, to “sunrise” provisions for fixed terms.

In our view, it is clearly not appropriate for constitutional legislation to be applied or disapplied simply as a result of a resolution, and such changes should be made only following the normal legislative process. That view appears to be shared by the Lords Constitution Committee, whatever its misgivings about the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny for first-Session Bills. Its recent report on the process of constitutional change emphasises the need for proper scrutiny of such constitutional changes. A particularly relevant paragraph states:

“We believe that both government and Parliament should recognise the need for constraints on the process of constitutional change so that a situation whereby the government is effectively able to change the constitution at will may be avoided.”

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

I am sure that the Minister was not going to suggest that the Constitution Committee supported the Bill. As he knows, it clearly does not.

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

I did not say that it did. I said that it had misgivings about the fact that there had been no opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny because this was a first-Session Bill. My point was that in its recent report—and not just in the paragraph that I quoted; throughout the report—it had said that constitutional change should be carried out properly. The idea that constitutional provisions such as this should be switched on and off through simple resolutions rather than through the proper legislative process, which involves consideration by both Houses of Parliament, is not appropriate. We agree with the sentiment expressed in the paragraph that I have just read out, which is why we oppose Lord Pannick’s amendments. Given that Lord Pannick is a member of the Constitution Committee and presumably supports the proper conduct of constitutional change, it is surprising that he is trying to insert in the Bill something that we do not think appropriate.

We should also bear in mind that both Houses recently engaged in a debate similar to this during the passage of what is now the European Union Act 2011, and that both Houses decided that it would not be appropriate to include a sunset provision in that Act. In the debate, Lord Lamont wisely noted that a sunset provision was not appropriate because it would provide for primary legislation to be reversed by a simple resolution. We believe that the Lords amendments would have the same effect on this Bill, turning important amendments to the statute book on and off without proper scrutiny.

The report of the European Scrutiny Committee on the European Union Bill states:

“All Parliaments legislate for the future. Laws passed by one Parliament do not contain a sunset clause at the Dissolution. The real point is whether a government can, in law, make it difficult for a future Parliament to amend or repeal the legislation it has passed; in our view it cannot. Our conclusion therefore is straightforward—that an Act of Parliament applies until it is repealed”.

That can also be said of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Should a future Parliament wish to amend or repeal the legislation, it could of course do so, but we believe that it should do so through the normal legislative process, not simply by passing, or failing to pass, a resolution.

That, however, is not the only problem with the Lords amendments. They clearly assume that it would be possible for the Prime Minister to regain the option of asking Her Majesty the Queen to dissolve Parliament, but it is entirely possible that, by failing to provide for the prerogative power to dissolve to be reinstated, they have left matters in the position where neither the rules in the Bill nor the previous prerogative powers can have effect. Indeed, it is worth asking whether it is possible to reinstate a prerogative power that has been removed. It should also be noted that the United Kingdom Parliament did not think it appropriate to include sunset clauses when legislating for fixed terms for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is not entirely clear why it should consider it appropriate to “sunset” the fixed terms for this Parliament.

Let us be clear: the Government believe that the sunset amendments would wreck the Bill and the principle of the Bill, which is why we oppose them. Our view was shared by others in the House of Lords. Lord Dobbs noted that the sole purpose of the amendments was to “wreck” the Bill, and went on to say:

“This issue has effectively been decided in this House and in another place, whether we like it or agree with it or not. I would not say that to support a sunset clause on this occasion is unethical, but it is entirely inappropriate. We do not use it on any of the other constitutional Bills; it is not the time to start doing it now.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 18 July 2011; Vol. 729, c. 1096.]

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the Members of the other place who gave us the amendments in the first place, and have given them back to us unchanged, have good intentions. I know that they are concerned about the major constitutional change to fixed-term Parliaments, and the abandoning of the current system whereby the Prime Minister has the power to call a general election whenever it suits his political purposes. I believe that the change that we propose is a good one—it works in many other countries, and in the devolved legislatures—but I understand why any significant change is apt to cause concern. That is why the system of post-legislative scrutiny exists, making it possible to consider whether measures are working and to make recommendations.

We recognise the concerns that have been expressed, and we wish to give formal reassurance of a kind that is consistent with the principle of the Bill. Our amendment in lieu, which we tabled last Friday and which we wish to substitute for Lord Pannick’s three amendments, would provide that the Prime Minister must make arrangements to set up a committee to review the Bill’s operation after the first full fixed term, in 2020. Those arrangements would require the committee, if appropriate, to make recommendations for the repeal or amendment of the Act. That provides a categorical reassurance that the Bill will be given full post-legislative scrutiny. It is a much better solution than simply allowing a significant piece of legislation to lapse.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 1:15, 8 September 2011

Listening to the Minister’s opening remarks, I entirely agreed with him that there was no need for a sunset clause, but shortly afterwards he spoke of a review allowing the opportunity for such a clause. If there is no need for it—I agree with him on that—why bother to table the amendment? Moreover, I do not think that it will be possible for the Prime Minister to organise a review in 2020, because by then there will be a House business committee, and it will be for it to make the decision.

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

The amendment in lieu does not concern a sunset provision. If the committee that was set up, having examined the operation of the Act and of fixed terms, concluded that the Act should be amended or, indeed, repealed, it could make such recommendations, but Parliament would then have to go through the full normal legislative process, with its checks and balances. There would not be a simple on-off provision that could be triggered in some constitutionally innovative way.

As for my hon. Friend’s point about the House business committee, it would of course deal with the business of the House. The committee set up by the Prime Minister would have to consist of a certain number of Members of Parliament—although it would not be composed entirely of Members of Parliament—to make recommendations. It would not deal with the timetabling of parliamentary business. My hon. Friend is, of course, a big supporter of both the Backbench Business Committee and the establishment of a House business committee.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

Will the Minister clarify three points? First, why has he chosen 1 June 2020 as the start date, rather than immediately after the general election on the first Thursday of May? Secondly, does he expect the whole process to take place between 1 June and 30 November 2020? Thirdly, why have the Government not specified how many people will be on the committee? Surely that would have been a reasonable thing to do.

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

We chose 2020 in order to ensure that the committee has had the experience of a full fixed term. After all, the Bill is not law yet. We argue that a fixed term is good not only because that takes that power away from the Prime Minister, but because it enables us to have a much more sensible set of arrangements. I hope it might mean that we would no longer need to have a wash-up process, because everybody would know when the parliamentary term would end. It may also help with handling pre-legislative scrutiny at the front end of the process—something for which we have been criticised. If a Government can be certain when a Parliament starts, how long it will last and how much time they will have, that will enable them to plan their legislative programme, including pre-legislative scrutiny, through that Session, which may result in some improvements. Such benefits will be properly seen only in the Parliament beginning in 2015; they will not be seen in this Parliament because the arrangements were not in place from the beginning of it. That is the reason for the 2020 date.

The reason for the other two dates that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is simply to make sure that the commitment to set up a Committee is not open ended, in which case some people might lack confidence in whether the Prime Minister would set it up. The Prime Minister has to set it up between those two dates; those dates refer to the arrangements to set up the Committee. [Interruption.] Well, it would depend on what the Committee was looking at and how long that would take. It will not have to report by 30 November. That seemed an appropriate situation, and it is only a short period after the date of an election, so it did not seem to be an undue delay.

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

I disagree with what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position. He is reading too much into this.

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

Order. This is not a private conversation. Members’ comments need to be recorded and reported in Hansard. If the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas

Docherty) wants to intervene on the Minister, I am sure the Minister will give way, but comments made from a sedentary position across the Chamber are not helpful.

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

This arrangement would also allow time after the general election for the new Parliament to meet. It did not seem appropriate to set an aggressive timetable and force overly hasty decision making. The timetable is set out so that people can have confidence that the committee will be set up.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

As the Minister knows, I thought the Bill was unnecessary and said so on Second Reading, but I cannot support the Lords amendments, because they seem equally unnecessary. Given that the Bill is primarily about the mechanism for the Dissolution of Parliament, which takes place at the end of a Parliament and over a short period, why do we have to wait until 2020 to review it?

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

If my hon. Friend thinks back to our earlier debates on the Bill and its effects, he will remember that this is not just a mechanical process to do with the detail of the Dissolution itself. Rather, it is about the consequences that flow from that. Much of our debate revolved around what will happen to the nature of the parliamentary process if we have fixed terms—what will be the benefits and potential negative consequences. The reason for looking at it after a full fixed term is to enable the committee to consider whether, as I would hope, the positive aspects of having fixed terms have come about. The point of that timing is to enable us to consider whether the possible positive outcomes we debated have come about, and alternatively whether some of the concerns that have been expressed on both sides of the House have been proved accurate, and then to make some recommendations and publish a report. As a consequence, this House will be in a good position to debate the matter and discover whether further legislation is needed.

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)

So far, the Minister has focused on the fixed-term Parliament aspect of the Bill, but there is also the constituency aspect. Will the review that the amendment would allow also be able to look at issues such as whether the number of constituencies should be fixed at 600 or there should be more flexibility, and whether the boundary reviews should take place every five years?

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

The hon. Gentleman took part in many debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill before it was enacted, and he will remember that we set up a similar type of review mechanism to look at the operation of that legislation in respect of parliamentary boundaries. A similar type of post-legislative scrutiny and review was set up to consider precisely those issues in that legislation, therefore. I hope that deals with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

Will the Minister also look at the question of the term of the Parliament, which we have discussed before?

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

That is a perfectly good question. The Bill sets up arrangements for a review of its operation in general. It is not an overly constrained review, therefore. The Committee would be able to look at the effects in the round and make appropriate recommendations that this House and the other place could then consider.

I hope the amendment in lieu will address some of the concerns expressed in the other place. Indeed, the Chair of the Constitution Committee, Baroness Jay, said during the consideration of Commons amendments that the Bill should be subject to some form of post-legislative scrutiny. I hope she and other Members will find our amendment in lieu acceptable.

It has also been suggested that the Lords amendments would alter this Chamber’s relationship with the other place, as they would provide that the Bill’s provisions for a fixed term could be “revived” only through a resolution of both Houses, which would concede an element of our primacy to the other place. I share that view. We can envisage a situation in which this House is wholly in favour of reinstating fixed terms but is stymied by what amounts to a power of veto given to the other, unelected, House. That cannot be right. If we send a clear message to those in the other place on this issue, letting them know we do not want, nor have ever wanted, a sunset clause to these provisions, then I am sure they will listen.

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

The right hon. Gentleman is leaping far ahead. We are considering this Bill now. Meanwhile, our reform proposals for the House of Lords have been published and are being scrutinised by the relevant Joint Committee. If at some point in future it is decided to change the arrangements under this Bill, that can be done in the normal way. The Bill can be amended or repealed through the normal legislative process. We are not seeking to constrain that. We are simply saying that the rather novel constitutional provisions that the Lords has inserted are inappropriate to a constitutional Bill.

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

Let me raise a few protest points at the outset. First, the Bill started its lengthy process on 22 July last year. In the normal course of parliamentary business, this parliamentary Session would have come to an end by now and therefore this Bill would already have fallen, so it would not be becoming law. Indeed, there would have been a point at which the House of Lords would have been able to hold the Government’s feet to the fire so as to extract greater concessions from them. I merely note that the Government have managed to give themselves a two-year Session. When the Leader of the House announced that that was going to be the case, I complained that it would give added powers to the Government. This is yet another example of how the Government have abused the constitution over the past year.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We were both elected in 2001, so I am sure he will recall that in both the 2001 and 2005 Parliaments the first Session lasted about 18 or 19 months.

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

No, we would now be in the mop-up session, and during that time there would be many other Bills that would need to be dealt with in limited time. Indeed, there are plenty of other Bills clamouring for time in this Chamber at present. That is precisely my point. There is no pressure on the Government to come to an agreement because they have another six months in which to do so.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 1:30, 8 September 2011

The shadow Minister of course makes a fair point, but to balance it we have to give credit to the Government for introducing fixed one-year Sessions in future. There is another side to this, although he makes a fair point.

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

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for my argument.

The other process point that I wish to make is that the lords debated their amendments in July and the Government tabled their amendment last Friday, but the amendment was not available in the Vote Office until this morning—that was despite my having asked for it on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. I had no access to the amendment tabled by the Government until today. I understand it to be normal practice, just as a matter of courtesy, for ministerial offices to write to shadow spokespeople when the Government table amendments to Bills in which the spokespeople have been involved, in order to give them notification. I say gently to the Minister that it would have been nice if he had been able to notify us of amendments.

It would also have been good if the Whips Office had, instead of stating categorically all this week, until about 3 pm yesterday, that we were not going to be dealing with this Bill this afternoon, owned up to the truth, which was that the intention was always to deal with this Bill this afternoon. Indeed, the Whips Office had told the Minister so, and the fact that this Bill was going to be discussed this afternoon had been set out in his diary for several weeks.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The shadow Minister makes a good point about the Whips Office. Will he be here tomorrow to support my Bill abolishing the Whips Office?

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

I am happy to abolish the Government Whips Office, but I am very fond of my Whips Office. It is always best to remain in as good an odour as possible with one’s Whips.

The simple point of process is that when the Leader of the House announces in the future business—as has been said, we hope that the Backbench Business Committee will do this in future—that consideration of Lords amendments may take place, he never specifies the Bill to which that relates. That is an unfortunate way of doing business, and it might make much more sense if, in future, the Government were to announce the Bills in question. If every Member of the House had known at the beginning of the week that we were going to be dealing with this Bill today, the Chamber might have been packed to the rafters—I note that it is not. That is despite the fact that we are sure to hear a wonderful speech from Mrs Laing, and many would have crowded in just to see her jacket this afternoon.

The amendment, in essence, confesses that the Government have not achieved consensus on a major constitutional change. Again, I say gently to the Minister that when any constitutional change is being made, especially when pre-legislative scrutiny has not been undertaken, when no draft legislation has been produced, when the change was not adumbrated in one of the governing parties’ manifestos and when it is a significant change from what was in the manifesto of either of the two governing parties, it is all the more important that Ministers and the Government in general proceed on the basis of consensus. Although I am often a fierce critic of the House of Lords, of its hereditary principle and of its appointment principle—I call it the “patronage principle”—I believe that the Lords plays an important stop-gap role in constitutional affairs. That is why I believe that this amendment owns up to the fact that, as Lord Butler of Brockwell put it, this legislation has been introduced

“without proper consultation, preparation or consideration.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 18 July 2011; Vol. 729, c. 1080.]

For many years, we relished listening in this Chamber to Lord Cormack, the greatest par-li-a-ment-ar-i-an of his age—he used about seven syllables when saying that word. As he said, this is an

“ill thought-out, unnecessary and bad Bill.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 18 July 2011; Vol. 729, c. 1087.]

There are specific problems with this amendment, most notably because it does not add anything. If their lordships think that it is a concession, they are completely mistaken, because already the Government will have to undertake post-legislative scrutiny on this legislation in the next Parliament. All the amendment does is provide for another version of post-legislative scrutiny, but such scrutiny will already have taken place four years before the date in 2020 when the amendment suggests it should occur.

I am somewhat of a suspicious mind; I think that the reason why the Deputy Prime Minister has insisted on this date in 2020 is his ambition to put up joint Liberal Democrat-Conservative candidates at the next general election and to be able to continue the coalition for two parliamentary Sessions. I say that because it was not an immaculate conception that led to this constitutional Bill; it was conceived behind the bike sheds as a result of the coalition partners—the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats—trying to fix the length of this parliamentary Session so that nobody could abscond should any difficulties arise. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether Andrew Percy is just waving to me or whether he would like to intervene. It appears that he wishes to intervene.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

The hon. Gentleman’s argument about joint candidates falls down because he needs to be able to find someone willing to stand as a Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidate.

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

I believe that earlier this week the Prime Minister described himself as a, “Pragmatic liberal conservative Eurosceptic”—he used different arrangements of those words in different arenas, as is his wont.

In addition, the amendment presumes that not only this Parliament, but a second one will run for a full five years. If that was not the case, choosing to specify dates in June and November 2020 would be particularly bizarre, as they might fall two years into another Session. This is where the following statement by Lord Armstrong of Ilminster is correct, although I confess that I do not quite understand the first bit:

“It is all Lombard Street to a China orange that the time will come when a premature Dissolution would be to the manifest benefit of the country”.——[Hansard, House of Lords, 18 July 2011; Vol. 729, c. 1088.]

I think that that is true. If we consider the recent history of the United Kingdom, we see that even on occasions when the Government had a decent majority, such as in 1964 and 1974—although the latter situation was more complicated—they decided to hold a new election because they felt that they needed a mandate to deal with a specific set of issues that had not arisen at the previous general election. I believe that that will happen again and that it will be in the interests of Parliament to have the greatest degree of flexibility to allow it to happen, if not to encourage it to happen. That is why this amendment, in trying to entrench not just one fixed term, but two—in the interests of the coalition rather than the country—is misguided. As I said, the amendment adds nothing because post-legislative scrutiny, a fixed part of the way in which we carry out our business, will apply to this legislation.

The Minister, charming as he is, tried to assert that fixed-term Parliaments are used in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in relation to local government elections and so on. However, these do not seem to have been very fixed in the past few years. Indeed, in the short time that he has been in power he has already changed the term for the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the local government elections in Northern Ireland. Now the Government have just decided that there will not be a fixed term for the police commissioners, because the first term will be slightly shorter than the second one, as the Government are not going to be able to get their legislation through in time to have elections next May and so the first elections will take place next November. So I am profoundly sceptical even about the ability of the hard-line fixed-termers, such as him, to deliver a fixed-term Parliament, because of the way in which politics works.

I wish to make a few comments about the specifics of the amendment. It states:

“A majority of the members of the committee are to be members of the House of Commons.”

I do not believe that the Government consulted anyone in the Opposition on this amendment. I am sure that had the Minister done so, he would now be leaping to his feet to defend himself—it appears, therefore, that he has not sought a consensus on this constitutional change. If consultation had taken place, we might have made some suggestions about how to constitute such a committee. It might have been better to state from the outset that it should involve Members of the House of Commons. I think that we should return to the practice of the 15th and 16th centuries—I am sure I have one hon. Member on my side here—which was that Joint Committees of both Houses should have two Members of the House of Commons for every Member of the House of Lords. I admit that that was at a time when there were perhaps 60 or 70 Members of the House of Lords and 480 or so of the House of Commons, whereas they are getting towards having double the number we have in this House. None the less, while this is a democratically elected House and that is not, it would make more sense for the majority from this House to be 2:1.

I note en passant that one Member of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform—not from the Opposition side of the House—pointed out that having such a large number of members of a Joint Committee makes it very difficult to do serious business. It is quite difficult with large Select Committees, but with 24 or 26 members of a Joint Committee of both Houses, it is phenomenally difficult to make progress.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I was just reflecting on the numbers. Are there not about 800 peers and 600-odd Members of this House? I think the hon. Gentleman’s calculations are slightly wrong.

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

Yes, I was noting the acceleration. The coalition has a commitment in its agreement that it will keep appointing more Member of the House of Lords until the numbers mirror the representation in the House of Commons. That means that they have another 269 to appoint. We are pretty much getting on for having up to double the number of Members at that end as there are here. In addition, the Government want to elect some Members so that if the Government get their way, without sensible amendments from the Opposition, we will have twice as many Members of the House of Lords as of the House of Commons.

The Minister said that the danger of a sunset clause would be that it would be like switching a light bulb on and off. What he fails to understand is something that some of us have been arguing for through several Bills—that is, many of the measures contained in the Bill would be far better dealt with through the Standing Orders of this House, particularly anything to do with a no confidence motion. There is a danger that otherwise they will be justiciable in the courts. He refuses to accept that. If it had been a question of Standing Orders, then as with any other Standing Order this would be a matter for the House to change. It would not need three readings, nor would it have to go to two Houses; it would just be a matter of a simple vote.

The Minister sets his mind against sunset clauses, but I remember when he used to sit over on the Opposition Benches—what halcyon days—and used to campaign for sunset clauses galore on Government legislation. With virtually every change we introduced through legislation on security and policing, for instance, the then Opposition demanded a sunset clause. On civil liberties, control orders and all these different elements of legislation there was a campaign from Opposition Members saying that there must be a sunset clause. Quite often, we succumbed to that campaign and we put them in. In a large amount of our civil liberties legislation, there were sunset clauses and provisions had to be renewed every year.

One of the most significant sunset clauses in our constitution refers to the inability of the Crown to have a standing Army unless there is a vote in the House of

Commons every five years. That is a sunset clause on the single most important part of our constitution: namely, the Crown’s ability to defend the country. The Minister is completely wrong to invent this new concept that we cannot have a sunset clause in a constitutional Bill—and only in such a Bill.

The Minister also said that there are no sunset clauses in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the single difference between this case and those instances is that there was absolutely no consultation with the wider public on this legislation. As for setting up devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there was lengthy and protracted cross-party consensus on precisely how everything should be set up. I think he is whispering something about the Conservatives not agreeing to devolution in Scotland, but we rejoice that the sinner repenteth. They had the opportunity to take part in that lengthy process of consultation and that is surely the proper process for changing the constitution.

Let me come to my penultimate point. The Minister says that those in the Lords who have presented amendments have good intentions, but he reminds me of something that happened when I went to a theatre a few years ago. There was a couple who had had a terrible row sitting in front of me and just before the play started, the woman turned to the man and said, “And the worst of it is that you’re so blasted pate-ronising.” He kissed her on the forehead and said, “It’s pat-ronising, dear.”

To be honest, I thought the Minister’s approach to their lordships—who are senior constitutional experts and have seen many of the corridors of power far more extensively than he or I—was downright patronising. I think they have come up with a good solution. The coalition Government can have their five years and there will be a general election in 2015 unless one of the Members for Bedfordshire manages to split the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister from one another, but thereafter it should be for the House of Commons and the House of Lords to decide whether to continue with this legislation.

I am sure that the Government Whips, through their nefarious processes, will have engineered that there are plenty of people to see off their lordships’ amendment this afternoon, but I tell their lordships that the Government are attempting to get them to sell their soul for a mess of pottage. The Government amendment is not an amendment that is worth supporting—

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

The hon. Gentleman is a fine, tall gentleman, so I give way to him.

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

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. While he is urging their lordships to stand firm, I wonder whether he might like to remind them that the Parliament Act does not apply so they can insist for as long as they like.

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, although I am surprised he is only taking us back to 1911. He normally takes us back a little further. The Parliament Act cannot be used in relation to this legislation because the Bill would allow for the extension of Parliament beyond five years—possibly to five years and two months—and that Act expressly prevents the Speaker from forcing the Bill on their lordships. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: your lordships, stand firm.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

The Lords amendment we are debating requires the Bill’s provisions to be renewed if they are to be used in each future Parliament, but the Pannick amendment defeats the purpose of the Bill by permitting fixed-term Parliaments only if agreed by both Houses in a future Parliament. It effectively annuls the provisions of the Bill unless both Houses of every future Parliament vote to put the provisions back in place.

The Lords amendment is effectively a wrecking amendment, because it does not even require a resolution to be brought forward to annul the provisions—it is the other way around. Resolutions have to be put forward in future Parliaments to re-establish the provisions. That is completely unnecessary, because if a future Parliament wanted to amend this Bill, it could do so through the normal process of legislation. The amendment simply creates an unnecessary layer of law and its real purpose is to wreck the Bill. It would have been better if the Lords had simply been honest about it and voted against the Bill rather than trying to insert this clause, which is simply a wrecking measure by another route.

The Government’s new amendment, which I support, provides to the Lords a reasonable compromise in that it allows post-legislative scrutiny after we have seen the effects of the Bill through the full cycle. I urge the House to accept the Government’s amendment and reject the Lords’ wrecking amendment.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

May I begin by asking the Minister to answer the third question I posed to him? In some ways, it is the most important—it is the question about the size of the proposed Committee. I have a huge amount of respect for the Minister and I think he secretly enjoys coming along on a Thursday lunchtime and spending some time with right hon. and hon. Friends on his side and on ours. We have excellent debates and he engages well with them. I suspect that the reason why we have such a poorly drafted offer from the Deputy Prime Minister and why the Minister has signed it off on behalf of the Prime Minister is that he knows the Lords will have to reject it, because it is so badly written, and he will be able to come back next week or in October and have another swing at this. The proposition offered on behalf of the Deputy Prime Minister opens up many questions that have not been answered about the size and remit of the Committee.

One could reasonably say that the Bill will have an impact not only on the workings of both Houses but on the devolved Administrations and on the local authority elections that subsequently take place, because we would have to have five-year Parliaments permanently for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in order to keep one year behind. That is a very unsatisfactory arrangement.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Liberal Democrat, Argyll and Bute

Surely, the Bill removes the uncertainty that would otherwise have applied, because without it not only would the Scottish elections have been scheduled for May 2015 but if this Parliament were to go full term, that election would also be in May 2015. That complete and utter uncertainty is removed by the Bill.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s optimism about the coalition holding together successfully for the full five years. I think that he is accepting that, in effect, we now have, permanently, a five-year Scottish Parliament and a five-year Welsh Assembly, but I am not sure whether legislation will be brought forward to make that clear in the next Parliament. That is a huge change in constitutional convention and I think he was involved in that. Certainly, his party played a significant role and there was cross-party consensus on it.

One of the key issues was having a four-year Scottish Parliament. I would very much hope that if the Committee were set up, it would have a remit that covered not just the impact on the workings of both Houses, but the impact on devolved Administrations and on local authority elections in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is disappointing that we have seen no such indication from the Deputy Prime Minister about what the Committee’s remit would be.

It is also disappointing to note that there is no length of time attached to when the Committee is expected to report by. If I were cynical and thought that the Deputy Prime Minister could not be trusted and might make a pledge that he would then break, I might think this issue would then be kicked into the proverbial long grass for, perhaps, the full five-year period. I was very surprised that although the Minister gave a reasonably satisfactory assurance about the starting date of the Committee, a closing date for its work has not been provided. I look forward to hearing his response in a few minutes, when I very much hope he will deal with that point.

We also heard from Mr Reid that this is a wrecking measure. I have been in the House for only 15 months but it strikes me that every time the Deputy Prime Minister puts forward something that his coalition partners are not keen on, some measures are described as wrecking measures. I seem to recall that exactly the same argument was used about changing the date of the referendum on the alternative vote. It was said that moving the date back six months would wreck the whole premise, but I note that that argument was not put forward this week by the Liberal Democrats about shifting the date of the police elections—somehow that is not a wrecking measure, but I cannot think why.

It is very disappointing that the debate was not better advertised, as my hon. Friend Chris Bryant mentioned, possibly because the Patronage Secretary was hoping that many of his more principled colleagues would make other arrangements for this afternoon and would not be around to give the measures the due diligence they could do with. I would be grateful if the Minister would outline why we were not notified until 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon that this important debate was going to take place.

The last issue that I want to address is the Minister’s argument that it would take nine years to start this process. I do not see why he requires, effectively, two complete Sessions of five-year fixed terms to do this. His argument about the upper House is quite revealing and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members in his party will take great comfort from the fact that he is now saying that there will not be an elected upper House and that we will rightly have a fully appointed House of Lords, as we have at the moment. I am sure that is part of the deal that was cooked up over dinner last night. I understand that the Minister was the subject of some roasting last night at the dinner and it is good to see his hands fully today. I understand that there was some concern among parliamentary colleagues that he would have to keep his hands in sight at all times. Without further ado, I will sit down so that he can respond.

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

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, let me deal with the concerns that have been raised by hon. Members on both sides. Chris Bryant made a point about the amendment’s availability. It was tabled on Friday and—obviously, processes of the House are a matter for the House—it was certainly on the parliamentary website for the world to see by Monday. So there were three, clear parliamentary days for Members on both sides of the House to look at the amendment and consider their views. The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the usual channels will obviously have been heard by them, and I hesitate to trespass on those matters. I shall leave that point there.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill has not had proper consideration, but it absolutely has. It is true that it did not have pre-legislative scrutiny—and we have explained on a number of occasions that it was a first-Session Bill and that we wanted to make progress on it—but it has had extensive legislative consideration in this House and in the other place. He pointed out that it was introduced to the other place more than a year ago, so the idea that this important Bill has not had proper scrutiny simply is not correct.

The hon. Gentleman said that post-legislative scrutiny already takes place and he is quite right to say that that is done not by the Government but by Parliament. The Government produce a memorandum on Bills that they submit to Parliament, but they do not, of course, scrutinise themselves. This simply adds to the existing scrutiny that will already take place—because of the concerns that people had, we wanted to make it explicit that the Prime Minister would set up a Committee that would look at the operation of the Act and would then have to report and would give the House the opportunity for a full debate.

Picking up the points that Thomas Docherty raised about the detail—the number of members on the Committee and the end point—this goes back to the point that the hon. Member for Rhondda made about operating by consensus. The Prime Minister would set up the Committee, but details about the number of members and the out-date would be addressed later. The terms of reference would clearly be very wide—the amendment mentions

“a committee to carry out a review of the operation of this Act” but does not narrow the terms. Those issues would clearly be agreed through the usual channels so there would be some sort of consensus for parties to appoint their Members to the Committee. It seems to me sensible to allow that process to take place rather than to set down every detail in the Bill.

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

The Minister says that we should clearly take it as read that the Prime Minister would engage in consultation with the Opposition, but I note that the Minister tabled a written ministerial statement this morning on the West Lothian question and the setting up of a commission, but he does not indicate at any point that he is going to consult with the Opposition on its terms of reference or its membership.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 2:00, 8 September 2011

I have just said that that would take place—the consensus on the Committee’s terms of reference, as is usual. That is very sensible; we do not want to put all the detail in the motion. The hon. Gentleman should read this morning’s written statement—I will not dwell on it, Madam Deputy Speaker, because you would call me to order if I did—and I am sure that we will have the opportunity to discuss some of the details tomorrow, when we debate a private Member’s Bill. The written statement sets out our overall position on the commission on the West Lothian question. We will consult Mr Speaker on some of the details involving the House, and we have also said that we will have a full opportunity for all the parties to consider the matter. That was in this morning’s statement.

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)

May I take the Minister back to the points about consultation that may be involved when the Committee is formed? Will he assure us that that consultation will not just be through the usual channels with the Opposition, but will involve all parties? As a matter of principle, my party has never accepted nomination to the House of Lords, and we were singularly excluded from any consideration in relation to the Committee that has been formed on that matter.

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

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point on that and thank him for making it. Given the nature of the matter, it would be helpful if the Committee were wide ranging. That is also a good reason not to be too specific about, for example, the size of the Committee. Clearly, we need to ensure that Members from all parts of the House are able to be represented properly. On setting down how big the Committee should be, there is, of course, a tension if Committees are too large, but if they are too small they can be too narrow. It would be helpful to be able to have that debate when we know something about how the measures have worked in practice.

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

Will the Minister be straight and guarantee that he will ensure that there is consultation with the opposition parties on the terms of reference of the West Lothian commission?

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

With respect, we are debating the motion. The hon. Gentleman and I can have a conversation about the West Lothian commission elsewhere.

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

I have only a few minutes and I am trying to deal with the points that hon. Members have raised.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

Will the Minister give a guarantee that he will consult the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland about this Committee and about the West Lothian commission?

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

On this Committee, the Prime Minister will of course be able to consult others. The operation of this Parliament, though, is a matter for this Parliament, so I would not necessarily expect that to take place. I should also correct one thing that was said earlier: we have changed the terms of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, but we have not made any changes to the terms of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Those matters were left for consultation between the parties. It is worth putting that on the record.

I think I have dealt with the issues I noted down that were raised by Members on both sides of the House. I urge the House to support the motion.

Question put .

The House divided:

Ayes 253, Noes 190.

Division number 343 Business of the House — Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

Aye: 253 MPs

No: 190 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.