Fixed-term Parliaments (Repeal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:09 pm on 6th March 2015.

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Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:09 pm, 6th March 2015

I congratulate Sir Alan Duncan on a stirring speech in which he spoke with great authority. The freedom of the Back Benches has allowed him to speak out on a great many issues, and I find myself agreeing with him uncomfortably often.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that having fixed terms is a substantial departure, and not only for this Parliament: Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are now moving towards the five-year fixed term, with important but limited caveats on when elections can take place—a two-thirds majority vote or a motion of no confidence.

Section 7 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 makes provision for these matters to be revisited in 2020, which is not that far away, albeit clearly not sufficient for the right hon. Gentleman and others who have spoken today. I am not going to rehearse at length the arguments for and against fixed-term Parliaments, as they are well known. I certainly cannot match the anecdotes of Sir John Stanley, but I can try to be a proceduralist and statistical and say there is some evidence from the university of Oxford that over the past 70 years the ability of a Prime Minister to choose his time has, notwithstanding the mistakes Edward Heath and James Callaghan may have made, on the whole given an advantage amounting to an estimated 6% of public support, which is not insignificant.

I think civil servants are very fond of fixed-term Parliaments—I suspect that might be an argument against—and in terms of certainty and allowing better planning, fixed-term Parliaments are an asset. I could tell a small story of my own here. In 2007, when there was some rumour of a general election being called, I remember disappearing into the tunnel on the Eurostar with an announcement imminent, and I came out the other end not knowing whether we were in the middle of a general election campaign or not. I mention that only to say that although a lot is said about the time wasted in prolonging Parliament, quite a lot of time and nervous energy is wasted in planning for elections that never happen.

Perhaps the main argument against fixed-term Parliaments is what we have seen over the past year, in what has been called the zombie Parliament. The rather sad way in which business has been dragged out and has collapsed or has been of an insubstantial nature has not been a great credit to this House. I am not sure, however, that one can draw the conclusion from that that is entirely the fault of fixed-term Parliaments, or fixed-term Parliaments of a particular length. It might simply be due to the way this Government have conducted their business. In the Labour party manifesto of 2010 there was a proposal to move towards fixed-term Parliaments, but of a four-year duration. That was our preference, and it may be our preference again in the future.

I believe that, given what is in the 2011 Act, the best course of action is to wait until 2020 and see what happens, and then take a slightly more considered view than can be taken in the course of one Parliament on whether fixed-term Parliaments are working and five years is the appropriate length of time. The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, who has more experience and wisdom than I do in these matters, might be entirely right. I simply say that I think it is a little precipitate, having gone through the process of getting us to where we are, immediately to reverse that decision. There might be an overwhelming consensus—not just one of 100 or 200—for reform again when we get to that stage, but for the present purposes I say that we are, reluctantly, unable to support his Bill.