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25 May 2010 : Column 143

Ms Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. What does he think about the propriety of attempting to change a long held, easy-to-understand mathematical concept of 50% plus one, simply to deal with anticipated issues in a coalition? Would it not be better for there to be open statements from the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister about their intentions, instead of this extremely convoluted-and, I think, quite improper-way of proceeding?

Mr Chope: I would not say at this stage that it is an improper way of proceeding, because these are very early days. This is the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament, and the first on this very subject. Many hon. Members, particularly Labour ones, have already raised the issue in their contributions to the Queen's Speech debate, and I have not seen what amendments there will be to the Queen's Speech.

I go back to the questions that I posed at the beginning. These are fundamentally important constitutional issues, and they should be referred soberly to a Joint Committee of this House and to any other Select Committee that wants to look into them. Evidence should be taken from constitutional experts and from the experts in our own House who are ready and available to assist us. We have already heard from Peter Hennessey, who thinks that this is of dubious constitutional propriety. I am no expert on the constitution, but I can see when a problem is in danger of arising, and we are in danger of getting ourselves into a mess in this regard. The last thing I want is for my party and the Government whom my party support to be put in a position where they can be subject to accusations by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and other Opposition Members that we have dealt with matters unfairly. I can imagine what it would have been like if I had been on her side of the House and she had been on my side and, immediately after a general election in which the matter had not been raised in debate, the Government said, "We think that we're now going to change the arrangements for the Dissolution of Parliament." I would have needed quite a lot of persuading; certainly, I would have wanted to have a lot of debate about it.

I fear that I have indulged myself by going on at greater length than I had intended, but I ask this question: am I wrong to be concerned that in the euphoria following the general election, this House may be seduced by the Executive into giving up its collective and powerful deterrent weapon for defeating and bringing down the Government? The Government seem to be seeking, essentially, a guaranteed five-year term of office-a five-year Government dressed up as a five-year Parliament. I hope that I am absolutely wrong in my concerns about that. However, I think that there is a flaw running through the argument that has been put so far in support of this proposal-that is, an inability to understand the difference between a strong Parliament and a strong Government. I look forward to hearing the response-a full response, I hope-from the Deputy Leader of the House.

9.42 pm

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for making this the subject of the first debate of the Adjournment process.

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I do not believe that this situation was caused by euphoria but, perhaps, by panic when the two parties found that they could not trust themselves by having the normal system of a simple majority. Before I came to this House, I taught government and political systems. I told my students that the House of Commons was based on the support of a majority of MPs, and that that was fundamental to our process, which was not like the systems that existed in other countries that were designed for coalitions. That has been the way in which our Governments could be held to account, and so they have been up until this time-until the introduction of the 55% concept, which my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) has called the Mugabe clause.

Much has been made of the existence of other systems-Slovenia was mentioned earlier-and particularly the system in the Scottish Parliament, where 66% is required for its dissolution. The difference is that that happened after almost 20 years of debate, with a constitutional convention, a great deal of study by Scottish constitutional experts, and advice on how to design a system whereby the Parliament could not have a majority held by one party. It is therefore not a good comparator; nevertheless, it has been made much of by my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the coalition in Scotland.

That system was passed through an Act of Parliament here-the Scotland Act 1998-after great debate and scrutiny through a proper system of constitutional Committees in this House. It was designed to prevent any party from having a majority. It therefore had to bolster the Parliament as constituted so that it could run for its fixed term of four years. There is no similar proposal, I understand, for the Commons to bring in a proportional system. AV has been talked about in relation to a referendum, but there has been no proposal to bring in proportionality on the same basis as in Scotland.

Let me explain the system simply. If a party's constituency Members win all the seats in a region, all the regional list Members are elected from the other parties. The party that elects all the first-past-the-post Members, and which therefore clearly has the popular vote of the people of the region, gets no further Members of the Scottish Parliament. The result is either a coalition, as existed between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party for two Parliaments in Scotland, or a minority Government, as we have at the moment. I believe that the Scottish National party Government are doing great damage to Scotland, mainly because they are supported on a supply basis-I do not know about a confidence basis-by the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament. A minority Government run for four years unless two thirds of the Parliament votes to get rid of them. The system is completely different and not really comparable with the system that we are discussing.

The parties in the UK Parliament went to the people of this country and asked for a majority, and they failed to get one. I agree with the hon. Member for Christchurch that that strengthened this Parliament. It was not the decision of the people of the UK to have a strong Government bolstered by a manipulation of the constitution such as the proposed 55% rule. I put it to the House that breaching the control of the UK Parliament through anything other than a simple majority is to betray the democratic credibility of the House and the electoral process in which the people have just voted. It is a
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shameful act, so I have a question for the Deputy Leader of the House: are there no depths to which the Liberal Democrats will not stoop to hang on to their tainted share of power?

9.46 pm

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). He obviously has much greater knowledge than I of the Scottish Parliament, but from what he says, it seems to me that the whole idea of a fixed Parliament was designed for a proportional representation system, which thankfully we do not have in this part of the United Kingdom.

I welcome the idea of a fixed-term Parliament when I was on the Opposition Benches because it would have the advantage of removing from the Prime Minister the power to call an election on a whim. I believed that it meant not allowing the Prime Minister to decide when to go to the country, so that he could not go early just to enhance his chances. We had a clear example of that in the last Parliament-I believe it was in 2007-when the Prime Minister was thinking of going to the country and there was a lot of hoo-hah. Nobody knew what was going on, and some people said that he bottled it. I do not believe that the Executive should have that power, and I am for giving it to Parliament. What I am not for is an artificial means of keeping the Executive in power. I wholly support the coalition's aim to have a fixed-term Parliament, but I am very much unpersuaded of the need for a 55% provision. I do not believe that it would work, for all the very good reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) gave. It could be overturned by a simple majority of the House, or there could be collusion and coalition Members could vote with the Opposition-it does not seem that it would have any effect here.

The one thing that the proposal would do, which seems to me wholly wrong, would be to remove the power of the monarch. At the moment, if a Government lose a vote of confidence, it is the monarch who decides whether the House should be dissolved or whether to try to arrange another Government. In the past, the latter has happened-Prime Ministers have gone to the monarch and said, "I would like a dissolution", and it has not been granted and another Government have been formed. I see no reason for changing that.

This Adjournment debate is one of those wonderful occasions, already in this Parliament, when we get to debate an important issue in some depth late at night. It is wonderful to see so many Members on both sides of the House listening to and participating in the debate. I would have thought that such a change needed much more due process and consideration.

I support the view that we need a strong, stable Government at this time in our history, but that is exactly what we have got. We have a strong and powerful Government made up of two parties, which are working together. I do not believe that the election produced a strong, stable Government by artificial means. Under our electoral system, we get the Government whom the people want. The people clearly did not want the Labour party to govern with a majority, and they clearly did not want the Liberal party to govern with a majority. They also did not want the Conservative party to govern with a majority. We argued the case: "Vote for us. We need a
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majority and we will have a strong Government." The people wanted parties to work together and Parliament to be strong and to scrutinise. That is the great advantage of the coalition.

I will want to support some policies wholeheartedly-for example, that of a fixed-term Parliament to remove power from the Executive, but without the 55% provision Indeed, many aspects of the Liberal Democrat manifesto could have been included in the coalition. I was very much in favour of its proposed referendum on in/out of the European Union. I voted for that in the previous Parliament. Such a merge seemed easy, given that the Conservative party was in favour of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.

One of the great things about the coalition is that it has brought together talented people from the Liberal and Conservative parties. To reply to the debate, we have a leading parliamentarian, who, in the previous Parliament, fought fiercely for the rights of Parliament and Back Benchers and I do not believe that that will change just because he is sitting on the Front Bench with a red folder on his lap. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House will allay our fears about the artificial 55%. There may be a good reason for it, but, given all the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch listed, we need to know a lot more about it.

I am in favour of a fixed-term Parliament but concerned about the 55% provision.

9.52 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): I begin by not only acknowledging the number of hon. Members who are present for the Adjournment, which signifies that it is a matter of interest, but congratulating the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing the debate. The irony is not lost on me that the first Adjournment debate of the Parliament is about how we might remove the Parliament. However, it is well timed.

I have two further reasons for thanking the hon. Gentleman. The first is personal. Without wishing to sound too much like Mr. Pooter, I want to record the fact that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to be the first Liberal Minister to speak from the Dispatch Box since Sir Archibald Sinclair on 16 May 1945. Secondly, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his approach to the debate. He has asked many serious questions about the policy and it is right that we have the opportunity to discuss them and that Parliament should have its say.

I want to make it clear on behalf of the Government that the principles of the policy are firmly settled-that is our view-but that some of the detail is still to be fully worked through. Although I will try to answer the hon. Gentleman's questions faithfully, I cannot answer some simply because they have not yet been decided. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that, although this proposition comes from the Government, it is for Parliament to decide. That is the right way to do things: we must not force things through Parliament, but debate them and hear what people have to say.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right that it is for Parliament to decide, but the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) made it clear
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that, when a constitutional matter of this importance is proposed, there is usually a process of pre-legislative scrutiny and extended reflection. Is the hon. Gentleman going to provide the House with a description of how that process will be conducted for this major constitutional change?

Mr Heath: First of all, the experience of those of us who have been in the House for the last 13 years is that that is not how constitutional matters have been dealt with. However, I assure the hon. Lady that there will be a full process. The House has a very early opportunity this evening to debate the proposition, but we will have at least two further opportunities to look at it in detail. The first will come when we debate the motion that will be put forward. That is a serious matter, but the second opportunity will arise when we consider the constitutional legislation, and I give the assurance that that constitutional Bill will be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Unlike what happened under the previous Administration, it will not be guillotined. People will be able to have their say on the legislation, and we will have the opportunity to hear them and to respond.

Ms Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and we note that the Bill will not be guillotined when it comes to the House. He has just said that he thinks Parliament should decide on this issue of great importance. Does that mean that there will be a free vote on his side of the House?

Mr Heath: All Members of Parliament are entitled to take whatever view they feel appropriate. It is not for me to say what position the Whips will take, but let us be clear: this is a Government proposition and I would expect members of the Government parties to support it.

Ms Eagle Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Heath: No. I am being very generous, but this is not the hon. Lady's Adjournment debate and I want to hear more from others.

I repeat what the Prime Minister has said already, which has been quoted. He has said that the country wants strong and stable government, and we are determined to deliver that stability with a lasting coalition. A fixed-term Parliament is part of that process, and I shall quote what my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said in his speech of 19 May:

It seems to me that that is a worthy objective.

There are real problems with- [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) can chunter from a sedentary position, but I am going to continue to set out the problems with the current system. The most obvious is that it gives an unfair advantage to the Prime Minister of the day and the party in power. We have seen it time after time, with Prime Ministers choosing the moment for the Dissolution of Parliament not for the good of the country but for the good of their own party interests. That cannot be the right way to do it-

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Mr Heath: No, as I have given way to the hon. Lady already.

Secondly, not only does the party in power have an unfair advantage, but there is an inevitable period of uncertainty, especially towards the end of the fourth Session of a Parliament, about when Dissolution will happen. Dealing with those issues through having a fixed-term Parliament seems to me to be something that this Parliament ought to support.

In addition to those undoubted benefits, our proposition would also reduce the complexity of electoral administration. We have a new regime of spending limits, and they are unnecessarily complex in the context of the moveable feast that is the present timing of an election. It would also allow the legislative programme to be planned more effectively-something dear to my heart and that of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House-especially in the fourth and fifth Sessions. But none of those advantages-

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.- (Mr Goodwill.)

Mr Heath: None of this will work if the Prime Minister of the day maintains the power to pick the election date, and that is what is being addressed by the proposal for fixed-term Parliaments.

Much of the debate in the Chamber and outside has been predicated on a misunderstanding-I do not say that it is deliberate-and a confusion between a vote of confidence and a dissolution vote. I know that the hon. Member for Christchurch does not share that confusion-he is very clear-but much of the comment in the press and some of the interventions this evening and earlier today suggest such confusion. The hon. Gentleman postulates the distinction between a strong Parliament and a strong Government. A strong Parliament is able to remove the Government of the day. A strong Government should not be able to remove the Parliament. That is the distinction that we are trying to address.

The Government will still have to resign if they lose the confidence of the House, and that will still be on a simple majority. There is no ambiguity about that. If the Government lose a vote of confidence, they are no longer the Government of the day.

Fiona Mactaggart: Will the hon. Gentleman give the House a commitment that this Government will not use their 55% to call an election earlier than five years?

Mr Heath: It is a clear commitment on the part of this Government that we wish to maintain this Parliament and the Government over a five-year period. That is our determination, and I have no difficulty in saying that.

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