|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I return to what will happen in the event of a vote of no confidence, because it is crucial. There would then be two possible outcomes. If the Government lost a vote of confidence, they would no longer be the Government-under our conventions in this House and in common with other political systems around the country. Then another party or coalition of parties might be able to form a Government from within the existing House of Commons. That is not the most
unusual thing in the world, because it happens in many other systems that have a fixed-term Parliament. It also happens within our present system if the Government lose a vote of no confidence and it is apparent to the monarch that there is an alternative Government or coalition in the House.
If no one can form a Government that has the confidence of the House, Parliament will be dissolved. Irrespective of other circumstances, if the Government lose a vote of confidence and there is no prospect of stable government, another election is inevitable.
Michael Connarty: My problem is that, in the situation that the hon. Gentleman is describing, he is relying on conventions and an unwritten constitution. He is about to introduce a part of a written constitution for the first time stating that a 55% majority is required to dissolve Parliament. The parallel with Scotland is quite clear. A minority Government in Scotland can lose confidence votes and remain, because they cannot be dissolved if they do not wish to go, unless 66% of Members vote for it. That was discussed over decades and is legislation in the Scotland Act 1998. Unless he is proposing to introduce more written constitutional elements stating what he has just said about convention, his word is worth nothing.
Mr Heath: I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's point. This will be legislation, and he will have the opportunity to make the points that he wishes to make when he sees the text of the legislation. He does not have that in front of him.
Mr Chope: Will the hon. Gentleman explain how this Dissolution will take place? He says that there would have to be a Dissolution of Parliament, but what would be the mechanics of that? The Prime Minister referred to Parliament dissolving itself.
Mr Heath: The legislation will be framed in such a way that, if no Government are formed within a particular time, Parliament stands dissolved. Now that is not a particularly difficult concept even for those who do not wish to understand-but, of course, I do not include the hon. Member for Christchurch among them. That is what will happen, and it provides an answer to those who suggest that it would be possible for a zombie Government who have lost the confidence of the House to be maintained in office. That cannot happen under the proposals that we will bring forward.
Mr Bone: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is helping the House understand this system and is making good progress. However, the real change under this 55% rule is that it will remove the monarch's role. Is the removal of the monarch's discretion the real purpose of the proposal?
Mr Heath: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it instead removes a difficult dilemma for the monarch, who is bound under the current conventions to take the advice of the Prime Minister seeking the Dissolution. That puts the monarch in an invidious position if that advice is not consistent with the political situation that, it might be suspected, is present in the House. By removing the prerogative exercised by the Prime Minister, the monarch is in the stronger position of not being put in the embarrassing position of having to divine by means that are not clear the intentions of the House.
An automatic Dissolution following a no confidence vote would not work in this context because it would prevent another party or parties in the House from having the opportunity to form a Government. Another general election might well not be in the national interest, particularly if it is very soon after the previous election. For example, in January 1924, Mr Baldwin lost the confidence of the House and Mr MacDonald became the Prime Minister. So we have a historical precedent.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has been to many Adjournment debates. There are normally three people in such a debate, but tonight there are 60 Members in the Chamber. This issue is causing enormous concern. Can we have a period of quiet reflection? Can we establish a constitutional committee to look at the matter closely and carefully, to give all Members and our constituents the reassurance that they desire?
Mr Heath: We will have a period of reflection: first, we will publish the motion, which the House will consider, and then, at a later stage, we will publish the legislation, which will be considered in advance and then by both Houses of Parliament, which will give them the opportunity to have their say. I do not think that this is a precipitate process; it is carefully considered. Hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman might well have views that they want to express on behalf of their constituents, and they will be listened to, because that is how we intend to run debates in the House.
Dr Julian Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so generously. I was reassured by what he said earlier about the lack of a guillotine on the legislation. Would he like to take this opportunity to say whether that will be the Government's new general policy on guillotines or whether it is specific only to this legislation? I remember, time after time, quite rightly being sent into the No Lobby to vote against guillotine motion after guillotine motion. I trust that we will be carrying into government the opposition to guillotines that we indicated when in opposition.
Mr Heath: The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I was in the same Lobby voting against those guillotine motions. That is why it is our clear intention not to apply automatic guillotines or automatic programme motions, because we do not believe that to be in the interests of proper consideration in this House. This is the new politics-the new way that we are going to run this House of Commons.
Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward the automatic Dissolution proposal, as a safeguard that we will make part of the legislation, if no new Prime Minister can be appointed within a certain number of days. It seems to me that that is appropriate.
I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has said that we cannot make any read-across to the Scottish legislation, but I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with him. One thing in the Scottish legislation is that although a two-thirds majority is required for an early Dissolution, there is a fall-back position, with
which he will be familiar, which provides for automatic Dissolution if the First Minister resigns and the successor is not appointed within 28 days. That seems an entirely proper constitutional safeguard, and I am very happy to propose something of that kind for our legislation.
Michael Connarty: The hon. Gentleman is correct on the point about resignation, which I did know about, but when a Prime Minister loses a vote of confidence-for example, the First Minister in Scotland-he need not resign. That is the point that I am making. Unless the hon. Gentleman puts it in his Bill that after a vote of confidence is lost the Prime Minister must resign, it is worth nothing.
Mr Heath: Let me respectfully suggest that that is the situation at the moment. I am quite prepared to argue on the details of the new legislation, but what I am not prepared to do is argue about the present constitutional position, which is that it is unprecedented for a Prime Minister who has lost a vote of no confidence to fail to resign. We must be absolutely clear that creating constitutional difficulties, which are inherent in our present unwritten constitution, is not a sensible way of debating the new position.
Let us deal with the 55% threshold, because I am not so foolish as not to understand that this is the difficulty that many right hon. and hon. Members have. The Prime Minister has set out the Government's position clearly-it is there in black and white in the coalition document. We believe that 55% is the right threshold, but it is perfectly open to hon. Members to argue that a different threshold is appropriate.
Mr Heath: So be it-that is the point of parliamentary debate. However, there is no point whatever in having legislation on fixed-term Parliaments if there is no constitutional lock. Otherwise it will become a meaningless piece of legislation. I know of no legislation in any country that provides for fixed-term Parliaments that does not provide some form of constitutional lock-some form of entrenchment-in order to ensure that the legislation is not cast aside at the whim of the Executive.
Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): As this is a contentious matter, will the Deputy Leader of the House tell us whether he is generally in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny? If he is, will this whole matter be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, and can he give the House some idea of the timing and of when the Bill is likely to be brought before the House?
Mr Heath: I cannot give details of timing-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I cannot give details of timing on the first day of the Queen's Speech debates in a new Parliament. I can only say that it is our firm intention that the motion will be brought forward before the summer recess, so hon. Members will not have to be patient for too long before they see its terms. As for the legislation, it is clearly set out in the Queen's Speech as part of this Session's legislation, so the hon. Gentleman can be assured that it will be brought forward.
In this instance, I believe that there is merit in listening to what people have to say about the legislation after it is published, rather than being too precipitate in moving from the motion, which will be debated by the House, to the legislation in due course. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.
Mr Chope: Will the Minister tell us when the binding motion is going to be published? If it is going to be debated before the summer recess, and if it has already been prepared, there is no reason why it should not be put on the Order Paper very soon so that we can have the maximum amount of notice.
Mr Heath: It will be put on the Order Paper at the earliest opportunity. I cannot be more precise than that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. There is much merit in people seeing clearly what is proposed as soon as possible, so that we can debate the matter.
Mr Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why he seems so reluctant to allow pre-legislative scrutiny? A measure of this type should be allowed such scrutiny, and we do not believe the coalition's collapse to be imminent. Presumably, therefore, there is plenty of time for us to give the Bill the consideration that it deserves.
Mr Heath: May I remove any view that the hon. Gentleman might have formed that I am reluctant to entertain the possibility of pre-legislative scrutiny? We have simply not determined the treatment of the Bill yet, so I cannot answer his question, but I hear what he says. There is a strong case for pre-legislative scrutiny, but I do not want to extend the consideration of this legislation into the following Session, because that would not be appropriate.
Let me return to the 55% threshold, because that will allow me to deal with one of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Christchurch. He asked for the details of how the 55% was to be calculated. Again, I cannot answer his question at this moment. That will be a matter for further discussion. I will say to him, however, that the system for calculating the threshold needs to be absolutely clear, and that there must be no doubt about the number of votes required to pass the threshold in any specific set of circumstances. It is important to make that clear in the legislation.
The important thing is that the final result delivers our twin objectives of stability in Parliament and Government while making it possible to have an election if no party or combination of parties can command the confidence of this House. I look forward to the debates that we will have on the motion and on the legislation.
Mr Chope: The hon. Gentleman appears to be reaching his peroration. I wonder whether he could explain how the proposal for 55% has been put forward without the Government knowing what that 55% has to comprise. Surely the first thing to do would be to work out what was meant by the 55%-we need to know what particular group it would be 55% of, for example-rather than asserting that a threshold of 55% was necessary, then trying to work out the details later.
Mr Heath: The coalition agreement was, I think, published three days ago, so it is not unreasonable to do further work on the details of what is being proposed. We will do so in the context of the expressions of interest of right hon. and hon. Members who have a legitimate interest in this matter.
Let me finish by dealing as far as I can with the series of questions put by the hon. Member for Christchurch. I think that I have already answered some of them, but I do not want him to feel that I have ignored them. He asked what is meant by a "binding motion" in paragraph 24 of the final coalition agreement. Surely, he says, any motion that is passed can later be amended or revoked by MPs. Yes, of course it can. A binding motion is an expression of intent, which can be reversed by Parliament at a later a stage because that is the way we do things in this House. There is no question about that.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the binding motion will be brought before the House before the summer recess. Yes, I have already said that it will. He should read nothing into the words omitted from the final version of the coalition agreement about the first days following it.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the legislation promised in the coalition document to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five years applies only to future Parliaments or whether it will apply retrospectively to the Parliament elected on 6 May 2010. It is our intention that it should apply to the present Parliament. That is clearly the proposition from the Government. He asked for details about the 55% threshold, but I think that I have just answered that by saying that it is a detail that needs to be addressed further.
The hon. Gentleman also asked whether Members other than Government Members would be able to table a motion for Dissolution and what safeguards would apply in respect of the Speaker being required to give precedence to such a motion over ordinary business. The hon. Gentleman and I have not argued so vociferously in this Chamber for such matters not to be in the hands of the Leader of the House for us to say now that it should be in his and only in his hands. It is clear that the intended legislation will not be placed into the hands of only a Government Minister; it will be open to the House to table that motion.
The hon. Gentleman raised the example of recent experience in Germany and the artificial construction put in place there in order to provoke a motion of no confidence. He is right that that was a shoddy way-that is what it seems to me, although I do not want to open up any diplomatic breach with our German friends-of managing the Germans' fixed-term parliamentary arrangements, but it has to be said that that would be
possible here under the current arrangements. There is nothing to stop a Government of the day deliberately losing a vote of no confidence, thus creating the circumstances for a Dissolution. There is no change there, which is what I am trying to emphasise. Very often, the circumstances will be the same, both before and after the relevant legislation.
The hon. Gentleman asks in what circumstances a Dissolution will follow if the Government are defeated on a motion of confidence by a bare majority. Well, I have already covered that at some length. Will there be any circumstances in which a Government defeated on a confidence motion can remain in office? No, but that is subject to the conventions that are already in place. As to hon. Members feeling that we need a written constitution, I would personally favour that, but it is not our current policy.
If the Government did not remain in office, could an alternative minority Government be formed, even if it did not enjoy the support of a majority of MPs on confidence and supply measures? It is quite obvious that if an alternative Government were formed that did not have the House's confidence, they would fall on the very first time they attempted to put forward a legislative programme or a Budget, so it would not be much of a Government. I think that we would quickly reach a point where Dissolution would be inevitable.
The hon. Gentleman asked what would prevent Parliament from repealing, by a vote of 50% plus one, legislation requiring a 55% threshold for dissolution. The answer is nothing. If this House and the other place agree to repeal legislation, that is the legislative process. Nothing would change: there is nothing that would entrench that in constitutional law.
The hon. Gentleman's other questions are worthy ones. Along with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I will consider them, because they concern the details of how we will manage the process of the legislation to give every Member of the House a proper say.
This has been an extremely useful exercise, which has, I hope, reassured some Members about our intentions. I hope that it has also explained those intentions, and has given Members an opportunity to express any concerns that they may have. In due course they will be able to express those concerns at length, both on the motion that we will table and on the legislation.