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16 May 2008 : Column 1712

Of course, that was not the case. The then Prime Minister, now Sir John Major, might have called a general election in 1991—I recall being ready for it myself, just in case—but he did not call it until the spring of 1992. In the intervening time, that did no harm to the economy or to the political process. Indeed, it did no harm to Sir John Major, either, or to the Conservative party, but it did do a lot of harm to the then leader of the Labour party and his campaign and campaigning style, and presumably affected the amount of campaigning that the then Opposition were doing. I do not know what sort of effect it had on Labour’s party funds, but Labour felt strongly enough about the issue to have fixed Parliaments in its 1992 manifesto.

Strangely, fixed-term Parliaments—what a surprise!—were not in the successful Labour party manifesto of 1997, when Labour eventually did get into government. My point is that it would appear that every Opposition want to use all the tools available to them—not surprisingly—to get rid of the Government. However, as soon as they get into government they do not want to do that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Let me put everything in the picture about the 1992 manifesto. The subject of fixed-term Parliaments was dropped but, as the hon. Lady might remember, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) described that manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. Perhaps that was not the only proposal to be dropped from that manifesto, as quite a lot of other things have changed since then.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Lady is right. I could have been much crueller about the 1992 manifesto—and indeed about the 1983 manifesto—but I thought that that would be unfair. The hon. Lady is right that there were many other reasons why the 1992 manifesto failed to bring about a Labour Government.

Bridget Prentice: I apologise. The hon. Lady is quite right to mention 1983. That was my mistake, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton was describing the manifesto from 10 years earlier than 1992. Nevertheless, manifestos change from time to time.

Mrs. Laing: I endorse that point. Indeed, Conservative manifestos are changing for the future, too.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I remember the 1992 manifesto with some clarity, and I was about to point out that the quotation cited by my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the 1983 manifesto. I was grateful for the dithering of the then Government in 1991, because I was pregnant, and at one point I anticipated that I would have my baby in the middle of that autumn election campaign.

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Lady strikes a potent chord with me, and I have every sympathy with her. As the hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned earlier, the
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date of the 2001 election was changed because of the foot and mouth crisis. I was expecting a baby at that point, and had thought quite happily that we would have an election in April or May, at which point I could manage one just fine. The election was quite rightly postponed for a month, and so I fought a general election on 7 June and gave birth to my son on 14 June. I sympathise completely with the hon. Lady.

I do not know whether fixed-term Parliaments—I am not suggesting that we get into this argument—will help future generations of female Members of Parliament and potential Members of Parliament to plan the birth of their children. I know that I got it pretty wrong—well, not entirely, because my son is of course the most wonderful person in the world. I appreciate that that point is out of order and nothing to do with the Bill, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): The hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said that Governments are given a great deal of incumbency power, but what happened last autumn showed the Prime Minister to the populace in a bad light. His power was turned against him and he is now the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began.

Mrs. Laing: As ever, my hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, which I hope we can emphasise during the rest of the debate.

I quoted the Labour party manifesto from 1992, which said that the question of whether the election would take place in late 1991 or 1992 had

The hon. Member for Cambridge argued that what happened in the political world last autumn likewise damaged our democracy and our economy. However, I argue that it did not damage the working of our democracy and it did not damage our economy. The only damage was to the Prime Minister and to the reputation of those around him for good political management. That is part of the world of politics—it is what happens in a democracy. Legislation such as the Bill would not prevent such things from happening again.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I think my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge was making the point that because of the speculation many actions that were important for the country were put on hold: for example, brand new Secretaries of State were put in charge of a possible election campaign. That false start, which none the less involved much planning, led to delay in many areas—not least the Climate Change Bill.

Mrs. Laing: I understand what the hon. Lady says, but the same thing would happen in a fixed-term Parliament, as we can see in the USA at present. The Americans have been campaigning for a long time—it seems like centuries. They refer to President Bush as a lame duck president because his term of office will soon be finished, but he is still in office. The circumstances she describes arise just as much in fixed-term systems as in flexible systems. It is all part of the democratic process.

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A cross-party organisation called Fixed Term was set up in October 2007—I do not know whether the hon. Member for Cambridge was a mover. The organisation campaigns for fixed-term Parliaments and has published the results of a poll conducted in October 2007. It found that 25 per cent. of Conservative MPs, 41 per cent. of Labour MPs and 88 per cent. of Liberal Democrat MPs support fixed-term Parliaments. If anything was to convince me to be against any Bill it would be the fact that 88 per cent. of Liberal Democrats but only 25 per cent. of Conservatives are in favour of it.

I did not quite understand the relevance of the other statistics published by Fixed Term, which tell us that 43 per cent. of male MPs, but 49 per cent. of female MPs, support fixed-term Parliaments. I could not understand why the organisation had bothered to research such information until the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made a point with which I entirely agree. I can now understand why female Members of Parliament are more in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, and I might even be persuaded on that point myself, but not this afternoon.

The strongest argument for change is that the incumbent Prime Minister has an unfair advantage. As I said earlier, it is ironic that the one person who would prefer a fixed-term Parliament system right now is the incumbent Prime Minister.

The debate has been valuable, and I am sure it will become even more valuable as we hear what the Minister has to say. I want to ensure that she has plenty of time to address the issues, and I am certain this will not be the last time that we debate the matter over the coming months.

2.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) on his success in the private Members’ ballot. It is always a great achievement and Back Benchers value it greatly. I am grateful to him for initiating this debate on fixed-term Parliaments. Parliamentarians love to discuss the topic; we always feel more expert than anyone else on anything to do with Parliament and the way it works—we always think we know better than most about that.

May I apologise again to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my absolute lapse of memory on suicide notes and Labour party manifestos, especially, after all, as I was elected on the 1992 manifesto? I should hardly want to admit that I was elected on a manifesto with which I did not have some association. Nevertheless, manifestos evolve and change, as does the parliamentary system.

The hon. Member for Cambridge has put his argument with great cogency. Indeed, in some ways, it would appear a neat and persuasive one. In fact, the issues that relate to the dissolution of Parliament and the timing of elections strike at the very heart of our democracy and constitution. We need to treat them seriously, so we very much welcome openly discussing possible changes to enhance the democratic process. That has been reflected in today’s debate and in some of the other things that we consider, not just the timing
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of general elections but the other aspects of our constitution, the way that campaigns develop and so on.

I was concerned that the hon. Gentleman said that his Bill made provision, albeit implicitly, for situations where the fixed term should not apply. It is a short, neat and very clear Bill, and I can see nothing in it that would allow Parliament, the Government or any other part of the Executive or the legislature to call an election outwith the fixed term.

David Howarth: The simple answer to the Minister’s question is that the principle of parliamentary supremacy allows us to pass any Bill that we like, and it would take precedence over anything that we had passed previously.

Bridget Prentice: The hon. Gentleman referred to that in his opening remarks. Yes, Parliament can pass any Bill that it likes. Some Bills take longer than others to pass, and others can be passed in a day. If a Government had a reasonable majority they could present a very short Bill—it would be at least as short as this Bill, if not shorter—to say, “We’re going to change the Fixed Term Parliament Act” and railroad it through very quickly in a day. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would consider that not very democratic and certainly not within the spirit of what he is trying to achieve with the Bill.

David Howarth: I thank the Minister for giving way again, but trying to force a Bill through the House in a day is very difficult without the co-operation of the other parties. Resources and procedural devices could be used that are not used when the other parties are co-operating. Furthermore, without the co-operation of the other parties, getting a Bill through the House of Lords, where the Government have no majority, is impossible in a day.

Bridget Prentice: I would not say that that is necessarily impossible in the House of Lords; otherwise a Government might find themselves never reaching the end of their legislative programme. However, it is true that Labour Governments certainly have far more difficulties in the House of Lords than do Conservatives ones. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental flaw in the Bill, but I will come back to that later.

Clause 2, which deals with the dissolution of Parliament and states that the present Parliament should be dissolved on 7 April 2009 and that it therefore cannot be dissolved at any other time, goes on to state that every subsequent Parliament should be dissolved 30 days before a general election. However, again, that does not seem to offer the flexibility required if other perhaps non-parliamentary events took place that might make a Government consider it appropriate to dissolve Parliament. Indeed, if a Parliament were to complete its fixed term, and something happened within, or close to, that 30-day period, there would be no flexibility in such circumstances, either.

The Bill primarily seeks to fix the date of the next general election, and I understand why the Opposition see merit in that proposal. However, they will not be
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surprised to know that the Government do not quite take that view. The Bill is prescriptive in its provision that elections should take place on the first Thursday in May, although I accept that the hon. Member for Cambridge said that that date could be changed on Parliament’s say-so. The worrying thing about the Bill’s wording is that it categorically forbids the dissolution of Parliament other than in accordance with its provisions.

From my perspective, there are two reasons why the hon. Gentleman has introduced the Bill, both of which are based on a genuine wish to improve the democratic process. First, the measure would repeal the serving Prime Minister’s sole ability to decide the timing of general elections, presumably to ensure that there is a fairer, broader and more democratic system; and, secondly, it would curtail the duration of Parliament generally by regulating the timing of general elections. The Government believe strongly in representative democracy with Parliament at its heart, and we have a long history of constitutional reform. Indeed, we have championed change in response to demands to modernise the institutions of government. As a Government, we are not afraid to consider and to implement constitutional and parliamentary reform if it better reflects the changing face of our modern democracy.

In honour of that philosophy, in July last year, the Government launched a Green Paper entitled, “The Governance of Britain”, which set out our vision and proposals for constitutional renewal. One of the main objectives was the rebalancing of power between the Executive and Parliament, and that agenda included a number of proposals to limit the Executive’s power, to transfer power to Parliament, and to expand Parliament’s role in certain areas. Some of those proposals were reflected in the Prime Minister’s statement about the forward legislative programme. We have undertaken an extensive consultation on policies with members of the public, private bodies, firms, academics and, indeed, other Government Departments. We always welcome contributions from Opposition parties.

Mr. Chope: I do not know whether the Minister has had the benefit of reading the proceedings of the Joint Committee on the Draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, but if she has, she will know that almost all the evidence that we have received complains of a big gap between the Government’s rhetoric and the reality, particularly in relation to the draft Bill.

Bridget Prentice: I have not read the details of those proceedings, but we are in the process of having that debate—the Joint Committee has been set up, and we are discussing the measure with people. The rhetoric begins the process, and the reality is what will come out of the findings of the Joint Committee and others about constitutional renewal. The package of reforms that we have put forward represents the recalibration of a number of significant parts of our constitution. It is another step in the long and detailed programme of constitutional change that the Government have undertaken since 1997.

There have been some fundamental reforms, including devolution in Scotland, Wales and, more recently, Northern Ireland, and the transformation of the role of Lord Chancellor. A supreme court is about to be established.
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The Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Human Rights Act 1998 were introduced, although I know that members of the Conservative party are not necessarily persuaded that we need a Human Rights Act. A lot of work has gone towards ensuring a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. The Government have been at the forefront of constitutional renewal for the past 10 or 11 years.

The reforms in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill will have real consequences for the governance of the country. For example, they will ensure that a future Government cannot make changes to the core values of the civil service without proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny. They will give Parliament a vote on the ratification of treaties. They will stop the involvement of the Lord Chancellor and Prime Minister in certain judicial appointments. Those are tangible reforms that will absolutely change the way in which our constitution and our Parliament work. I want to consider some of those reforms in detail in this debate.

The process of constitutional renewal continues with the publication of the Constitutional Renewal Bill. It is in draft so that we can respond to the debate so far, and then move on to the next phase. We invite Parliament and others to consider and comment on it and on the White Paper; that will enhance the quality of our legislation and contribute to the next step in the improved constitutional settlement. Of course, the Bill and the White Paper do not set out the final blueprint of our constitutional settlement; they are the next step in the governance of Britain programme. We hope that people across the country, in every walk of life, will continue to participate in the debate. That is a vital step in strengthening our democracy.

The governance programme is of particular relevance to today’s debate. It sets out to remove the power of the Prime Minister of the day to call a general election at will—that is the essence of the Bill before us. One of the main areas of the governance of Britain work is our commitment to consult on whether to change the system for dissolving Parliament. There is a very useful House of Commons standard note on fixed-term Parliaments. Currently, the Prime Minister requests that the monarch exercise her prerogative power to dissolve Parliament. The note says:

Of course hon. Members will today have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy) say that the Queen has given her consent to our debating the Bill in Parliament.

Constitutional monarchs may continue to play a role in the formation of Governments, even in European countries where proportional representation, written constitutions and fixed-term Parliaments are in place. In Denmark, for example, the Government are in existence in law by virtue of the Prime Minister being nominated by the sovereign. In some countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, the monarch traditionally plays an active personal role in forming a coalition.

David Howarth: First, that is not the position in Sweden. Secondly, does the Minister not think that it is a good idea to remove our monarch from any possibility of involvement in politics?

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