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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 4:51 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, I wish to address the measures announced in the gracious Speech that relate to fixed-term parliaments, the alternative vote referendum and the principle of moving to more equal-sized electorates in constituencies.

As someone who has worked both as a volunteer and a professional in the last 10 general election campaigns, I personally welcome the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments in future. It is not just a matter of personal convenience to be able to plan your holidays and work around the known dates of elections nor a matter of assisting everyone involved in planning the campaigns, including the staff, the parties and the media, but an important democratic principle.

It has always seemed unfair that the leader of one political party can choose polling day according to their own party's advantage. Of course, they sometimes make mistakes, such as Jim Callaghan in 1978 or Gordon Brown in 2007. But, by and large, the power to choose polling day based principally on examination of opinion poll or local election data has in the past given an unfair and undemocratic advantage to the party in government. That is why Opposition leaders have had good cause to complain. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, argued strongly for fixed-term parliaments in 1992. But Labour's addiction to power after 1997 meant that that was one of the many reforms that did not see the light of day in Labour's 13 years in office, although it resurfaced in its recent manifesto.

Since 1999, we have seen the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly function well with fixed-term parliaments, no one party having an overall majority, different coalitions being formed and periods of minority government. The sky did not fall in in response to any of that. Many noble Lords will also be aware of how most local authorities function on a fixed-term cycle based on elections every four years. In these councils, even a vote of 100 per cent of the members does not lead to a new set of elections. Councillors simply have to respect the voters' verdict and make it work over the four-year term.

Fixed-term parliaments work in many countries. In the United States, President Obama knows that he is elected for a four-year term to head the executive branch of the US Government. Nothing can alter that, short of impeachment. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, suggested that perhaps if a Prime Minister dies there should be a new general election, but in the United States if a President resigns or is assassinated, there is no new presidential election-the business of government continues.

There has of course been much debate today on the principle of how a general election might be triggered at an earlier point than the fixed term. My noble friend Lord Tyler pointed out that when introducing fixed-term parliaments for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, the previous Labour Government legislated to require a two-thirds vote for a new election to be triggered. To those who have said today that a Dissolution of Parliament should be triggered by a vote of 50 per cent plus one of the Members, I say that this would mean that we did not have a fixed-term parliament whenever one party, as is usually the case, had a majority. If a Government with a majority can vote for Dissolution and a general election then we will simply hand power back to the governing party to choose the time of the election. The 55 per cent rule is necessary-