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"House's mastery of its own proceedings".
The Bill seeks to put into law provisions for a fixed-term Parliament, rather than putting them only in Standing Orders, which can be changed at a moment's notice. The 10 o'clock rule is suspended on a daily basis and Standing Orders are cast aside and suspended on a regular basis. To pretend that there is an atomised Parliament with 650 Members all exercising their consciences is a self-deception out of which, I hope, hon. Members throughout the House will educate themselves. In that way, we can take back some control for the House and strengthen Parliament, and people can elect us understanding that the House of Commons-the legislature -is different from the Executive, and should have its own independence and powers.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) led me down the road of the rebalancing of powers between the legislature and the Executive, and I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that this, for once, is the Executive actually giving away a power, for whatever reason. We can make our own judgments about the reason, but I welcome the change, because it helps to rebalance the power between the Executive and the legislature. If we
seize this moment, we could use it to help to strengthen this institution rather than, as the hon. Member for Stone mentioned, just following the Whips. We could use this precedent to make sure that we can build up and strengthen our Parliament.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: The hon. Gentleman says that the Bill could strengthen the standing of Parliament. However, as I understand it, the Bill does not prevent the Government from putting down a motion of no confidence in themselves and therefore, if they had a majority, getting an election whenever they wanted one. That is the ineffectiveness of the drafting of the Bill.
Mr Allen: There are so many flaws in the Bill's drafting. The Committee, on the hon. Gentleman's behalf, has done as good a job as it can in pointing them out. I hope that all of them will be put right during the Committee stage, as they could be put right if we were to have a special Public Bill Committee or a proper pre-legislative process. However, that is currently not the case. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and one that should be addressed by the Government as the Bill proceeds.
The other thing about a fixed-term Parliament is predictability and continuity. Instead of permanent politics-as-entertainment, in which there is speculation about impending general elections and people feed tittle-tattle and gossip to raise or lower the political temperature, we will know that we can get on with serious business while knowing the date of the next general election and putting such considerations aside. That is something of great importance, and would lead to us as parliamentarians being able to seize greater control of what we do in this place on a number of issues, rather than being engaged, even at arm's length, in speculation about when an election will take place.
Mr Shepherd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee, and for the evidence that it has taken. However, what concerns me-one of the witnesses makes this point in a written statement-is that we are talking about piecemeal constitutional change. The Labour and Conservative parties are dedicated to an elected House of Lords, for instance. How does a five or four-year term-or whatever it is-fit into the broader picture for us? That is what bothers me, so to talk about a piece of piecemeal legislation-and to ask the question "Cui bono?"-is not good enough.
Mr Allen: Perfection may be the enemy of the good in this case. As parliamentarians, we are feeding on the crumbs from the table, and I guess that this is as good as we can do. The choice is not between the Bill and a big-bang written constitution that solves all the problems in one go; the Bill is what is on offer, and as supplicants in the process, we can only try to make it a better part of this piecemeal change. Unfortunately, we do not have the option of something much more fundamental; and indeed, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman would really want that. However, perhaps he does, so I will follow his speech with interest.
The other thing about predictability and continuity is that they give Governments the chance to decide their programme and work through their Bills much more effectively. This helter-skelter "throw it into the mix"
way of passing legislation debilitates Governments of all parties. Let there be proper evidence-based policy making-probably for the first time in our lifetime-so that the Government can put things to the House of Commons that are almost fully formed, rather than throwing them in and saying, "We'll hope to amend them as they go through this House and the second Chamber." Instead of saying, "Let's botch a few things and get hundreds of amendments down to try and get the Bill into shape," how about having proper, considered, evidence-based policy making from the Government, which would then be immensely strengthened by proper scrutiny by the House? Who loses in that process?
Some might say, "It's going to delay things," but we did this. Indeed, a classic example from when Labour was in power was criminal justice Bills. We popped them out virtually once a year because we had not got it right the first time, but we also had to get something before the House and show that we were fighting crime. I think we can all do better than that. If we used the process that is readily available to us to consider legislation carefully, the Government would amaze themselves at the Bills they could produce for the House and the House would amaze itself at the contribution it could make by having proper scrutiny of how legislation develops.
We have proposed, on an all-party basis, that there should be 12 weeks of pre-legislative scrutiny. To his great credit, the Leader of the House has written to the Liaison Committee saying that Bills should normally have a 12-week evidence-taking pre-legislative scrutiny period. If we can get the so-called new politics to deliver on that, so that every Bill goes through that process, we will produce much better law. However, if we just ram things through the House of Commons, it will be business as usual and legislation will be flawed. Those who throw in the bogey of the courts coming and lurking in the corridors of the House of Commons will find their wish fulfilled, because there may indeed be flaws in the legislation. I hope we will iron out all those wrinkles this week and in the days on the Floor of the House, but if we are not careful and if we do not have the right level of scrutiny, we may get what we wish for.
Mrs McGuire: Given the adversarial nature of our legislative process, does my hon. Friend agree that some of the issues to which he has alluded will be difficult to iron out in the passage of this legislation and that pre-legislative scrutiny would have led not only to a far better conclusion, but to one that would have gathered a consensus across the House?
It is not always possible to achieve a consensus, but technical issues-whether the courts might be involved; whether the proposal might be implemented better through Standing Orders or in statute; the number of days needed after a Government have lost the confidence of the House-are the sorts of things that can be decided to everybody's satisfaction. That does not mean that everyone will be satisfied for or against a fixed-term Parliament, but that is the purpose of a Second Reading, and that is the purpose of the final reading in this House: to say yes or no to the key principles. What we in this House are failing to deliver is technically competent, thoroughly analysed and examined pieces of legislation. That is why we have Select Committees, Public Bill
Committees and the Committee stage on the Floor of the House for democratic Bills. However, we as a House are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to do that work by asking our Select Committee to come up with a report, good as it is, in two or three days.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I join others in congratulating the hon. Gentleman and his Committee on the work that they have done in the short time available. Can he share with the House what discussions he has had, and what explanation he has been given, about the failure to go down the route of pre-legislative scrutiny for this important piece of constitutional legislation?
Mr Allen: I will have to let the Minister answer that question in the wind-up. With the first Bill-on AV and boundaries-there was a desire for a referendum in May and a great rush to secure one. With this Bill on fixed-term Parliaments, which would benefit immensely from study-not delay, but getting it right-I have not really had a sensible explanation as to why it is being pushed through in the brief period when the House is back in September.
The Bill as a concept-and so without a Second Reading-could have been discussed on the Floor of the House in June or July. Without any knowledge of the Bill, we could have discussed the key principles, but it was not put before us in a way that enabled the Committee to bring sensible and serious evidence before the House. If doing things that way could become part of the process, I would be very happy, but that would really mean putting it in Standing Orders. It is no good waiting for smoke signals from Ministers or the Leader of the House; it should be the right of this House to look at legislation. That should be what we expect, not something that may be handed down with a nod and a wink.
Pete Wishart: We all very much enjoy the hon. Gentleman's evangelical speeches on behalf of empowering the House, but there are three representatives of minority parties in the Chamber, and he will know that we do not have the same access as hon. Members in the three big parties. What is he actively doing to ensure that we are represented in all those important Committees of the House? We are not on his Committee, for example, or on the Liaison Committee, and there are so many others. Surely he could help us a bit more to get there.
Mr Allen: I do not want to go over old ground-you might pull me up, Madam Deputy Speaker-but the hon. Gentleman will know that there are a number of us, not least among the Select Committee Chairs, working away on that issue to try to find a happy resolution. Unfortunately, what was agreed at that moment was a satisfactory compromise, but not exactly what we might all have wanted in those negotiations. None the less, that is something that the House must continue to pursue.
Another advantage of the predictability and continuity of a fixed-term Parliament would be that it would give Members of Parliament and their staff, and the staff of the House, some clarity about the House's timetable and calendar. That would bring some stability to the way in which staff are employed, for example, and to their holidays and their terms and conditions. Such
provisions in the Bill would also give electoral registration officers in every locality a greater length of time to prepare than they have when a snap election is called. We have heard, in a different context, lots of stuff about people failing to register. It would be well within the compass of election registration officers to build up a registration campaign ahead of key events such as general elections, and to plan ahead for such campaigns.
We have also heard-I think it was from the Deputy Prime Minister, or perhaps from an intervener on him-about the Electoral Commission's report, which was published today. It talks about the importance of overseas and forces voters being registered properly, and a fixed-term Parliament could broaden our democracy by making that work. At heart, however, the Bill is about restoring policy questions to our politics, and about not being so distracted by the media blood sports relating to whether we are going to have an election, in whose favour it will be and when the Prime Minister is going to go to the palace.
Finally, I want to deal with the failure to get effective scrutiny for the Bill. That failure has meant that we have not been able to look at a large number of issues that attach to a fixed-term Parliament, including the use of royal prerogative powers and the strength of the Executive over Parliament. We have not been able to study the links between what we are proposing now and fixed-term Parliaments in other areas. We have not been able to examine prerogative powers in relation to proroguing Parliament. That has been mentioned tangentially, but why do we still have these obscure, ancient rights? No one, except those who work inside the Executive, seems to know quite where they come from or how they can be exercised. These things are not in our power; they are not part of Parliament's mastery of its own destiny.
The power to set the date for the meeting of Parliament after a general election is not in the gift of the Members who have just been elected; it is in the gift of the Government. We are not masters of our own destiny in that regard. The power also exists for the Prime Minister to go to the Palace without any authority from Parliament. We talk about things being announced on the "Today" programme, but the Prime Minister does not even need to come to the House to announce that there is to be an election. He does not even have to come here, as the leader of the main party, to claim the right to be sent by Parliament to the palace. We see smoke and mirrors on general election night; colleagues are a passing butterfly of an electoral college that night, and they are expected simply to toe the line thereafter. That is what royal prerogative powers are about; what the term really means is Executive power. All those powers remain untouched and unlooked-at, because we were not allowed to scrutinise the Bill effectively.
I will vote for the Bill tonight. In principle, we need a fixed term for our Parliaments. We should debate on the Floor of the House whether it is four years or five. We should, however, have had proper scrutiny. That would have made this a better Bill. I say with some empathy for the coalition Government that, above all, if they want to change the way in which we are governed, and the way in which our democracy works, they cannot do it by the old methods. They have to reach out, explain and educate. If they do not, those people who would
otherwise be their friends and make a consensus work, and who would make the new democracy work and give Parliament the rights that it deserves, will not be with them. It is a great mistake to push through legislation, particularly legislation of this nature, without trying to bring people with them, and the most important people to bring with them in that regard are Members of this House of all parties.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. There are 15 Members in the Chamber who wish to participate in the debate. As there is no time limit on speeches, we will not be able to fit all 15 Members in unless we see a little more progress being made. This is in hon. Members' hands, but a quick calculation shows that if each takes about 10 minutes, we might have a racing chance of fitting everyone in. I want to make that clear to everyone who wishes to speak. Otherwise, we might have to reflect on whether we need a time limit.
Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate, and a particular pleasure to be called to speak after the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen). I shall come to some of the concerns that he has raised, many of which I share. However, that does not take away my genuine pleasure at being able to speak to a Bill that, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier, takes away the Prime Minister's power to choose the date of the election to suit his or her party. There are understandable concerns-perhaps more than I had envisaged when I came into the Chamber today-but my party and I see the Bill as a huge step forward.
We have heard about somersaults in manifesto commitments, but I support the principle behind the Bill, and the need for fixed-term Parliaments has been enshrined in my party's policies and manifestos for many decades. I do not know when the four years became five during the negotiations between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiating teams, but the principle is still there. Of course there are still details to be worked out in Committee and, yes, many questions should have been asked during pre-legislative scrutiny. In an ideal world, we would also have had more than two days to consider the Bill in Committee. Those are legitimate concerns, but I do not want to lose sight of the principle behind the Bill.
I also believe that the Government are in listening mode. Concern was expressed-and shared by some on the Liberal Democrat Benches-when the 55% threshold was announced, and a vigorous campaign was set up to oppose it. The Government have listened to those concerns and revised their position, and I hope that some of the sensible comments that have been made today will attract the ear of the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.
I have served on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee for the past five years. Anyone who has served on a Select Committee will know that, when such Committees work properly, the depth of their inquiries and their capacity to call witnesses over long periods of time are not taken lightly. I share the concerns expressed by the
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in its report. It had the capacity to hold deep and meaningful discussions over a couple of sessions. I am grateful to the Chairman for the fact that I received my copy of the report very speedily; reading it over the weekend certainly informed my understanding of the matter. However, this is not a satisfactory way to proceed.
We have also heard about the concerns of the Clerk of the House. They were articulated strongly by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox). I shall not attempt, given my humble background, to denigrate the views of the Clerk of the House, but he has strongly held views, and a counter-view was put forward by the Chairman of the Select Committee. All those views need to be fully examined, and we need to see a balance between different witnesses putting forward their cases. I do not, however, share the view that the Bill should not proceed as a consequence of those concerns, and I welcome the principles behind it, and the common ground that is to be found across the Chamber.
One specific matter still concerns me, however, although I was reassured by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's comments on it earlier. It is the position in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister has talked about pursuing these matters further, and there are legitimate concerns about the prospect of National Assembly elections in Wales on the same day as the next general election for this Parliament. The consequence might be an increased turnout, but there is a genuine fear, articulated by many parties in Wales, Scotland and, no doubt, Northern Ireland as well that Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish issues-the issues of the Celtic nations-will be drowned out in a national picture.
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the same principle applies to having council elections on the same day-and that long-serving councillors with a good record might well be washed up in national swings?
Mr Williams: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I hesitate to agree because we are talking about national elections for countries-about two general elections happening simultaneously in the same country. That is the difference. We are talking about the relationship between the media and the campaigns and the ability of the Welsh and other Celtic nations to get their message across in the national media.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point. I heard the Deputy Prime Minister say that a solution would be found, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would not be acceptable to have those elections only a few months apart? We cannot be in continual election mode in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for, say, six months a year. There has to be clear blue water between the elections.
That is the debate that needs to be had. I took the Deputy Prime Minister's statement as the opening gambit in that discussion. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. For the First Minister in the Welsh context simply to tamper with the date and have a general election in Wales a month after a general election
would be completely unacceptable. We would have two months of perpetual campaigning and the drowning out of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish issues would still very much apply.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): In future elections to the Welsh Assembly, the constituencies for Westminster might not be the same as those for the Assembly, which could lead to the confusion experienced in Scotland for the same reason.
Mr Mark Williams: My hon. Friend makes a telling point. It is one thing to have a general election and a one-issue referendum. I do not mind saying that I have chosen my line on that issue; my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has convinced me that the Welsh people are perfectly equipped to differentiate between one issue on one ballot paper and voting in a Welsh general election. However, having two general elections on the same day is quite another thing, not least because of the different boundaries that are likely to apply, as my hon. Friend suggests. That will lead to a huge amount of confusion. We need to take a few minutes to reflect on it; I know it is hard for Members representing English constituencies to understand. It would be immensely confusing to voters if two general elections were held on the same day. We already have difficulty in explaining the devolution settlement and how it works, and indeed explaining the distinction between powers for the devolved nations and powers exercised by this Parliament. It is a very big issue.
I did not necessarily expect my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to address this issue, but I am very pleased that he has. We do not know what it involves- [Interruption]-yet. He has acknowledged the problem, however, and I pay tribute to him for that, but we have to go further.
Maria Eagle: Did the hon. Gentleman not get the same impression from the Deputy Prime Minister as I did-that the solution brought forward will be that the National Assembly and the Parliaments will have to change their election dates?
Mr Williams: That might well be the consequence. I would personally much welcome the Welsh First Minister, rather than a Minister in this place, having the capacity to alter the election date, because that is what devolution is all about.
Mrs McGuire: May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that that stands in contradiction to the reply he gave to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), when he said that he did not want us to be in perpetual electoral mode. Frankly, from what the Deputy Prime Minister said today, we are talking about only a few weeks' difference-not months or even years-between one election and the other.
Mr Williams: The right hon. Lady makes a fair point. That is why I differ slightly from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) about whether the gap should be months or years. At the moment, there is a capacity to alter the dates for a month either side of the current arrangements, whereas I would welcome an arrangement whereby the Welsh First Minister could effect a difference of months.
Lorely Burt: I enter this nationalist debate with some trepidation because, as an English MP, I have not been involved in this type of situation. Does my hon. Friend not think that the electorates in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have the ability and intelligence to differentiate between two different elections and to make their minds up appropriately on the day?
Mr Williams: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I am drawing a distinction between a general election and a referendum. Fighting two general elections on different boundaries will potentially create huge problems. I have never doubted the intelligence of the electorate of Ceredigion to make judgments on all sorts of things, but some of the concern is legitimate. Like the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth), I have not had any letters about fixed-term Parliaments, but I guarantee that people outside polling stations will be very concerned if we have these two elections on the same day. There will be a lot of concern and anxiety about it. It might not have manifested itself yet, but it will if the two elections go ahead on the same day.
Roger Williams: My hon. Friend is very generous in giving way. Before he concludes, I would like to put on record the view I share with him that, if the date of the election is to be altered, the Assembly and the other devolved Administrations, rather than Westminster, should be given the power to determine it.
Mr Mark Williams: I agree absolutely. As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is a committed devolutionist, as am I, my party and other parties in the House. It is only right that that decision should be made in the devolved national bodies.
That is a debate to be had, as the past five minutes have illustrated perfectly. That reinforces the point made by the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Nottingham North, about the extent of the scrutiny he is able to undertake. The case for pre-legislative scrutiny now seems lamentably to have passed this Bill by. These are immense constitutional issues, but I believe that there is a large-albeit not unanimous-consensus about them. I only wish we had the opportunity to illustrate it through the scrutiny work of the Select Committee and other bodies of the House.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP):
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this important debate. In the space of just seven days, we have faced a barrage of constitutional legislation and various announcements. Since last Monday, we have had legislative proposals on changing the voting system, reducing the number of MPs and new boundaries for constituencies right across the country within an unprecedentedly short space of time. Today we have legislation before us for fixed-term Parliaments. This morning a decision was announced about doing away with the Queen's Speech next year and moving towards five-yearly fixed terms, with Queen's Speeches in spring rather than the autumn. As I understand it, an announcement has also been made today about legislation to bring into effect the provision of a referendum whenever further powers are to be transferred to Brussels. In fact, most of the damage has already been done
when it comes to transferring powers to Brussels, yet nothing is to be done about that-but that is a different debate.
I list those legislative proposals simply to show the difference between what is happening now and the September sittings of previous Parliaments, which, frankly, amounted to nothing more than a bit of window-dressing to impress the media that Parliament and MPs were busy about their work. We cannot accuse the Government of that in this September sitting, as some of the most meaty legislation has been introduced in a short space of time. I say that not to compliment the Government but to condemn them, as they have rushed through this massively important, incredibly significant constitutional legislative change, with at least five significant proposals, three of which are contained in the primary legislation.
As the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said, the Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have not shared with the House why they felt that the normal pre-legislative scrutiny period could not be afforded for the Bill. Given that the Bill has no deadline, and we are to have a two-year Parliamentary Session, there is no reason why we could not have had proper pre-legislative scrutiny. When the Minister winds up the debate, I hope that he will tell the House why it has been denied that.
I listened carefully to the criticism made by the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) of the piecemeal approach to constitutional change. Given the items of legislation and various constitutional proposals already brought forward within a very short space of time, it is obvious that there is no overall, co-ordinated, strategic approach. I favour pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills as they come forward, but the case has been made powerfully-the plethora of legislation makes the case-for a much wider consultation and consensus-building exercise when it comes to changes to our constitution, changes to how Parliament operates and changes to how our parliamentary democracy functions. It cannot be right that such major changes are introduced in a piecemeal fashion, to suit the whims of the coalition Government.
Surely we should proceed on the basis of not just pre-legislative scrutiny, but a constitutional convention involving all parties, the wider community and the public, so that people sit down and discuss properly the way forward for the constitution of the United Kingdom. Now that we have devolved legislatures, Executives and Governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, that is all the more important. In all the debate, where have those Governments and legislatures been properly considered? That lack of consideration is only one illustration of how the Government have thus far not adhered to the respect for the devolved legislatures and Administrations about which the Prime Minister spoke when he first took office. That respect agenda has not been evident in how the Government have operated so far, certainly in relation to major constitutional issues. I appeal to the Government to build a consensus on the issues and to consult. These constitutional issues are far too important to be treated as matters of party politics, or issues to be pushed through the House as other legislation and policy issues can be at times, and should be given much wider consideration.
Last week, I put forward criticisms of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, but in principle I support fixed-term Parliaments. Many hon. Members
will take different views on the different Bills. Some are in favour of the alternative vote and the boundary changes, but are against fixed-term Parliaments. Some favour fixed-term Parliaments, but are against other aspects. That shows that we need a co-ordinated approach, with a much wider, in-depth consideration of how the different pieces of legislation fit together.
On this Bill, I agree that a fixed-term Parliament is important, and I am delighted that the 55% threshold has been removed. I agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that it was removed purely because it would never have got through the House. I am also pleased that the Government have dealt with the lame-duck Parliament issue, by building in provisions for a 14-day period to allow an alternative Government to be formed. A fixed-term Parliament has the advantage of removing from the Prime Minister of the day the ability to go to the country on the basis of the best interests of his or her party, not those of the country at large. It takes away the period of intense election speculation that can arise-even in the middle of a Parliament, as we saw in 2007-and to which everything else is made subject.
Although I welcome the principle of the Bill, there are issues that need to be addressed in Committee. For instance, some of the issues that have arisen in the debate illustrate that the Bill does not provide the certainty that people thought. Under the Bill as it stands, the Government of the day could engineer a vote of no confidence so that they could go to the country at the time of their choosing. If the Prime Minister has given up the power to go to the palace to seek a Dissolution of Parliament, what is the position in relation to a constructive vote of no confidence brought about by the Government of the day? As we know, Parliament cannot bind its successors, so any subsequent Act of Parliament can, on a simple majority, overturn a previous Act of Parliament. Despite the Bill containing a 66% threshold, any future Act of Parliament introduced by the Government of the day, were they so minded, would pass by a simple majority. Therefore, the Bill does not provide, as some have claimed, certainty for ever.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) addressed the issue of the dates of the electoral cycle. I join those Members who have raised concerns about the coincidence in 2015 of the general election and elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. I listened carefully to what the Deputy Prime Minister had to say, and it struck me that his comments were perhaps made on the hoof-I do not get the impression that a lot of consideration had been given to the point prior to the debate. He said that he would address the matter, think about it and discuss it. Will the Minister reassure the House that consultation with the devolved Administrations will be genuine, and that when the Deputy Prime Minister speaks to the folk in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, he will not simply go away and then come back and impose a solution? The proposal must be agreed with the respective devolved Administrations. It will be totally unacceptable if the assurance given by the Deputy Prime Minister amounts to nothing more than the usual consultation. The consultation must be genuine and must respect the views of the devolved Administrations.
When the hon. Gentleman uses the term "devolved Administrations", is he using a generic term? Is he saying that he wants the commissions or
bodies corporate of the devolved institutions of the Parliament and the Assembly, rather than just the Executives, to be consulted?
Mr Dodds: I am happy to give that assurance. That is exactly what I mean. I think that this matter is far too important for all those institutions and bodies not to be involved, and that there must be a consensus. I end where I began: with the need for consensus on these important matters, between the Government here at Westminster and the devolved Administrations and their various organs, and within those bodies. The issue is too important for people to play party politics with it.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I must notify Members that, under Standing Order No. 47, I intend to impose a time limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches between now and the beginning of the winding-up speeches at 9.30 pm. That will give me some chance of allowing everyone to speak.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): I will endeavour to complete my speech within eight minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am glad that you called me at this point, because interventions on the matters that I wish to discuss were beginning to creep in, and it would have been a shame if I could not have made my speech because my points had already been made.
A major advantage of fixed-term Parliaments is that they bring stability to the country and the markets by informing them of what a Government's legislation will be, and of whether they can steer it through without the threat of a general election that might change both the governing body and its legislation. The issue goes further than the House. I hope that the Ministers will note my comments, and will bear them in mind during the Bill's subsequent stages. There have been encouraging signs today that the Deputy Prime Minister is paying attention to the debate and is willing to make some changes.
A relevant consideration is the way in which we approach council elections. The Government are keen to put more power into the hands of local government. I believe that local government suffers as a result of elections that are too regular, and that therefore provide for short-term governance. Currently, there are votes at least twice every four years for 76 two-tier councils and 20 unitary authorities, and there are 36 metropolitan authorities with four-year terms elected by thirds. I plead with the Minister to take on board my plea that councils should be told, "Although you have the option to move to all-out elections every four years, we want to legislate for you to do that."
I hope that elections for police commissioners could be held at the same time. As has often been said, a local election tends to be seen as a referendum on the Government of the day. Holding both elections on the same day might save money for the public; moreover, any referendum on government would take place locally and the arguments for the police commissioner would take place independently. People may have different opinions, but we are in this place to debate issues.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): My hon. Friend may be suggesting something similar to mid-term elections, but one of the problems with the Bill is that it proposes a five-year cycle. If we are to opt for the system suggested by my hon. Friend, we really need a four-year Parliament with the council elections two years in, and unfortunately the Bill will not give us that.
"We have try to engage our electorate throughout the year. Every month we get out on the streets to remind them of the work we are doing. We want them to remember our work when they go to vote in May."
The first couple of sentences are laudable-indeed, I hope that everyone will do as the councillor suggests-but surely people should behave in that way as a matter of course, not just because they face elections in May.
In my city of Leeds, councillors are elected annually for four-year terms by thirds. Each election costs council tax payers £600,000. The introduction of a system of all-out four-yearly elections would save them at least £1.2 million. Leeds is one of five unitary authorities that make up West Yorkshire. According to a recent figure issued by the West Yorkshire electoral offices, the cost of an election for police commissioners could be as high as £1.5 million. That sum could be almost recouped if just one of those authorities was included in the election.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): My hon. Friend is making some interesting and valid points. Does he agree that the Government's stated aim of cutting the cost of politics would be greatly served if we simplified council elections in the way that he suggests? Would not the savings be considerable?
Alec Shelbrooke: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are discussing the advantages of a system of fixed-term Parliaments. I am arguing that it would not only save money and increase turnouts, but allow local councils to govern for the long term in conjunction with the Government. The problem now is that councils govern for the short term because there is an election every 12 months, and are always seeking the political advantage rather than thinking about what needs to be done over the long term.
I was about to end my speech, but perhaps I can put the hon. Lady's mind at rest by telling her that I am in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, and
that I will vote with the Government this evening. I am trying to explain how I think we should be governing. I hope that my points will be taken beyond Westminster and considered at local level, because I believe that if Government are to govern for the long term-and I am in favour of fixed-term Parliaments because they will remove instability-local government will benefit from the powers that we want to pass down to it, by enabling authorities to govern for the long term as well rather than having their eye on annual elections.. Otherwise, by the time a deal has been hatched they will not have even one year of governance. They will probably have a maximum of three months before starting the next electoral process.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" is what Aretha Franklin sang so heartily back in the 1960s. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position I am hearing pleas to sing, but I shall try to avoid doing that.
The same mantra has been adopted by the coalition Government in the context of their relationship with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although no one would for a minute accuse Aretha of being anything less than passionate and committed to the respect agenda, I do not think that the same could be said of the coalition Government. They are not so much about "RESPECT" as "CONTEMPT". What we have seen from them is not so much a respect agenda as an almost total contempt agenda. They do not consult our Governments about any legislation that they seek to introduce, although it introduces huge constitutional reforms. They do not take any of our objections or any of our realistic difficulties seriously. We are dismissed and almost belittled when we try to make complaints, and that is not good enough. This Conservative and Liberal Government will have to learn to engage properly with the devolved institutions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. If they do not know the words of "Respect", perhaps they should go and listen to Aretha once again.
This issue follows on from last week's constitutional Bill, on which there was not a peep of consultation with any of the Governments of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, even though what is proposed in the Bills last week and today will have dramatic effects and a huge impact on the democratic processes in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I do not have a problem with fixed-term Parliaments; we have them in Scotland and they work perfectly well. Everybody understands that we will have an election every four years. They get rid of the whole idea of prime ministerial or first ministerial advantage. They get rid of the silly and ridiculous situation we had last year when a lame duck Prime Minister hung on to the last possible minute, seeing if there were any advantage in calling an early election, and then eventually went the full term. Fixed-term Parliaments get rid of all that nonsense and are, in effect, a good thing. I support them.
But why five years? I struggle to understand why we need to have five years for fixed-term Parliaments. Why not get in line with the rest of the UK? It is four years in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Were we to adopt a four-year fixed-term Parliament, we would not have the difficulties of clashing with the Welsh, Northern Irish or Scottish elections. Surely that should be the real intention. Let us not create constitutional confusion in this country. Let us try to make sure that people can understand what is going on.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee analysed legislatures throughout the world and found that the norm was four years and that five years was very unusual. Surely the Government should be looking at what is the norm throughout the world.
Andrew Percy: As interesting as it is to hear about what is happening in other countries, I am more interested in what happens here. The hon. Gentleman will of course be aware that the average length of a Parliament in this country since 1945 has been 3.7 years. Actually, four years would be a very British thing to do.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful for that intervention. The shadow Justice Secretary made that point earlier. We have learned some fascinating pieces of electoral history today. The point is well made; when it comes to talking about the history of this nation-never mind international examples-four years seems to be just about the right length of time for a Parliament to get its legislative programme through.
If we move to five years, the next general election will be on the same date as the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What on earth were the people who came up with the Bill thinking about? Surely they looked at the date of May 2015 and thought, "Wait a minute. Something happens that day." Surely they should have thought that the thing that will happen that day is the elections throughout the rest of the UK. Either they did not know or they did not care. Which was it? Did they not care that having those elections on the same day would result in absolute and total confusion? Does the Minister know that there are different constituencies for the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments? Two different sets of returning officers and polling staff would be required. God knows what the counts would be like, but it would be an absolute recipe for total disaster.
Any Scottish election campaign inevitably would be drowned out by the London metrocentric media. There would be leaders' debates without any representatives of the Scottish Government involved. The campaign would be skewed towards the big parties. We would have no chance whatever of getting our point across. All domestic issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be totally and utterly overlooked. It is not right, it is not fair and it is not the way to proceed with our democracy in the UK.
It is not just about elections; it is about democracy and ensuring that people can make an informed choice when they come to put their cross on the ballot paper, whether for this House, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly or local elections.
I listened with real interest and care to what the Deputy Prime Minister said about trying to address the problem. I accept that he is sincere and I look forward to hearing further plans for how that will be done, but we cannot do it now. The returning officers in the other Parliaments and Assemblies have the power to alter the timing and dates of an election by one month. One month would make no difference whatever. Can we imagine how ridiculous it would be? We would just have gone through an election and would be celebrating victories-we hope-and then we would be off to the next one without having time to draw breath. That is nonsense and must be looked at properly.
The Government will have to devolve powers to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. That would mean reopening the relevant legislation, as that would be the only way to do it. These powers should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament so that it can determine its election date.
I heard the Secretary of State for Scotland talk about a six-month gap between the Scottish and Westminster parliamentary elections. I do not know whether the coalition Government are starting to put that together as a solution, but six months is not good enough either. That would mean almost a whole year of elections. We would just conclude one campaign and then we would start another.
We need a clear space, and six months is not sufficient to ensure properly contested election campaigns. Why must the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments move their dates? We have had our election dates set in stone since 1999. The next election will be the fourth we will contest. The Government knew that these elections would take place in May 2015. Surely it is this House that should move its date; it could go six months earlier or later. It just is not fair or right. I look forward to the Government's proposals but they must be substantial because what has been proposed so far is not good enough.
I am pleased that the Government got rid of the silly notion of a 55% threshold for the Dissolution of Parliament. I heard some utter nonsense about the programme for dissolving the Scottish Parliament in defence of the 55% proposal. I am pleased that the Government did, more or less, adopt the Scottish system for Dissolution almost in full, and that is right.
I want to conclude with a few words from Ron Gould, the man who was drafted in by the Electoral Commission and the Scotland Office to look at the disaster that was the last Scottish parliamentary elections. We remember it not only because of the fantastic SNP victory, but because of the 140,000 spoilt ballot papers that resulted from the previous Government's combining of local authority elections with Scottish parliamentary
elections, using three different electoral systems. We cannot allow that to happen again. The paramount concern of the House must be the electorate; they must have free and fair elections and must not be confused as to how they make their choice.
Aretha sang about respect. I hope that the Minister is listening, that he can start to get the respect agenda back on the rails and that he will listen to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so that we do not have three elections on the same day.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) on his excellent maiden speech? I agreed with every bit of it other than, I am afraid to say, his conclusion.
There are three things that I would like to look at briefly: first, the broad constitutional issues; then some of the detail of the debate; finally, the process. I hope that I can do that in the time allowed.
On the broad constitutional issue, I think that fixed-term Parliaments are a mistake. It is unfortunate to undermine a constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarchy needs to preserve some role for the sovereign within it-some purpose in having that final arbiter of the system that is above and beyond politics. I am very nervous about giving that role to the Speaker, as this Bill proposes, because, first, it is a bad idea to have a Head of State and a quasi-Head of State-one is quite enough for me, and a hereditary Head of State, which we have had for the best part of 1,000 years, seems a pretty good one to have. Such an approach would also bring the Speaker, who will not be advised by the Prime Minister in this area, into the murky part of party politics. There is a risk that the Speaker could give his certificate for a general election-the most important part of our democratic process-as a matter of political controversy, and that cannot be wise. Let us consider the recent discussion on whether or not something is a money Bill, because that is already putting the Speaker in the political spotlight. A money Bill is an obscure procedural measure, whereas a general election is at the heart of everything that we do. So bringing the Speaker, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues into this murky business will be a mistake.
That leads to the issue of where the courts come in-a matter that has been discussed in this debate. I am not a lawyer, but I can say that the thing to bear in mind about Bradlaugh's case is that the House of Lords ruled that it should not intervene in the procedure of the House of Commons, because at that point the highest court in the land was, of course, one of the Houses of Parliament. That is no longer the case, and with the Supreme Court outside Parliament, the constraint does not apply, so the courts may be willing to be more enthusiastic in their interpretation of statute than they were when the House of Lords was our supreme court. Those are the broad constitutional issues that give rise to concern.
We must then consider the Bill itself and what it contains. The problem with the Bill is that perhaps the best reason for voting for it is that it is pointless. The
Whips have certain powers, authority and wise influence that they bring to bear and they could say to me and to other hon. Members that it might be best if we were absent when another hon. Member had tabled a motion of no confidence-they might suggest that we went on a nice trip, to the Seychelles or some such place. That motion would then pass, the Speaker would have no choice but to issue his certificate and, hey presto, we would have a general election at the time of the Prime Minister's choosing. That is a rather foolish approach to legislation.
I doubt whether the 65% hurdle would ever come into effect, but it would be objectionable if it did get into law because it would set a requirement for more than a simple majority, for the first time in the history of this Parliament. That would be a procedural mistake; one vote ought always to be enough. It would also require a percentage of 66 and two thirds of those who are available to vote-not of those who actually vote. Interestingly, a Government who are introducing that into legislation are reluctant, so I hear, to have a turnout threshold in a referendum on the alternative vote. One may see some implicit contradiction in those two suggestions. So, the Bill is rather a hollow shell.
Alec Shelbrooke: I want to pick up on that point about the alternative vote and what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said about spoiled ballots in Scotland. Does this not further the case that a first-past-the-post election is by far the most effective?
I come to the process of the Bill and how we have reached this point. How did we come to consider a fixed-term Parliament? I am not aware that many of my hon. Friends put this proposal in their election addresses-they may have done if they were Liberal Democrats, but not if they were Conservative. It is not a Conservative proposal in any sense. It got into the coalition agreement late at night, in what would have been a smoke-filled room had not the previous Government banned smoking in office spaces. This therefore took place in a smoke-free environment-a healthy and politically correct room-and late at night it was decided that it would be a good idea to shore up the coalition for five years.
The political arguments for this Bill are first class, but it changes the constitution-a constitution that has evolved. Pitt the Elder, a Whig Prime Minister-it is always nice in the spirit of coalition to quote the Whigs-talked of the "genius of the constitution". Let us invoke that genius, which has let our constitutional processes evolve and develop. This has not been done because the coalition needed some quick fix to make sure that the next election would clash with elections in Scotland and Wales-that is, of course, an inadvertent result of what has happened. The coalition did not come to this agreement with the possibility of extending the life of a Parliament beyond five years. I am sure that all hon. Members have
read the note from the Library pointing out that this legislation will not be subject to the Parliament Act if the other place disagrees, because it extends the life of a Parliament by another two months should the Prime Minister, by order, so wish to do. This is an accidental Bill, thought up in the late hours of the night. It takes away that wonderful flexibility that our constitution has had to meet the needs of circumstances and to evolve.
One way in which the constitution was beginning to evolve, which the electorate seemed to want, was that a Prime Minister's resignation part way through a Parliament should lead to a general election. When I knocked on doors in my constituency, people did not tell me that they wanted fixed-term Parliaments, the alternative vote or any of that. However, they did ask who had voted for the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). People in North East Somerset of course knew his constituency, because they are a knowledgeable lot. They asked who had elected him to be Prime Minister. Although the constitution is clear that we can change Prime Minister as often as Her Majesty sees fit, the mood of the country is for that constitutional evolution. That is how our constitution works and how it has done for hundreds of years-at least since the Glorious Revolution. Let us hope that it continues to work like that and that this Bill is amended on the Floor of the House out of all recognition.
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The style, tone and content of his speeches are always worth listening to, even though we may not always agree with his analysis. Like many Labour Members, I have not always been in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, but over a long period in politics I have come to understand the reason for them. I always found the excitement of the prime ministerial prerogative enticing and, over the years, we have always been able to persuade ourselves that the argument for it was the overwhelming one. I also remember James Callaghan going to the TUC and singing his famous ditty, "Waiting at the church". At the time, I recognised that his political party was on a state of alert, but the rug was pulled from beneath us in October 1978.
The argument against fixed-term Parliaments has always been about political advantage but, as we have heard, there has never been a political disadvantage in having fixed terms for local authorities. As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Northern Ireland Executive also operate within a fixed-term context. Given that experience, some of the arguments against the political prerogative of the Prime Minister can be overwhelming. It is not whether or not there is a prerogative to call an election that gets a Government re-elected; it is about the performance and credibility of the political parties during any election, be it at the end of a fixed term or not.
So having undergone this Pauline conversion on the principle, I cannot begin to describe my disappointment at this Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister told us, in one of those extravagant flourishes of which he is so fond, that the electoral reforms that he was presenting to us-over the past two weeks, as it turns out-would be the greatest reforms since 1832, never mind the other
suffrage legislation in the 19th century, the introduction of votes for women in the 20th century, the reforms removing the financial powers from the House of Lords, or indeed the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies by the last Labour Government. This was to be his Great Reform Bill. Yet what we have before us is a Bill that is being rushed through with no opportunity to consider it properly or to deal with its implications.
"prepared on an extraordinarily rushed timetable. It was introduced with no prior consultation, no Green or White Paper. Nor has time been allowed for pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill."
According to both the Clerk of the House and the Chairman of the Select Committee this Bill was ripe for pre-legislative scrutiny, and such scrutiny could have sorted out some of the issues raised today.
We must ask ourselves why the Bill has been rushed through, as there is ample time for pre-legislative scrutiny. The coalition has already said that it intends to stay with us for five years. Unless its confidence is disguising an uncertainty as to whether it will survive for that long, the Prime Minister has laid out the ground rules for this Parliament: we are here for the duration.
Why was there no Green or White Paper? Why are some Liberal Democrats, who wanted to subject everything to pre-legislative scrutiny when in opposition, not pushing harder for this Bill to receive such scrutiny? Surely a minimum of 12 weeks would not scupper the Bill, undermine the principles or erode support. Surely the Government have more confidence in their proposals than that.
The establishment of a Scottish Parliament was linked to a debate in this House, a White Paper and a referendum, and a consensus on the proposals was built up. We heard last week that we will have a referendum on the alternative vote. Why are we to have a referendum on AV but not one on fixed Parliaments? Surely the two votes could have been linked. Also, why is reform of the House of Lords being taken slowly yet this reform is being rushed through?
As other Members have said, constitutional Bills are not straightforward. I was astonished to hear the Deputy Prime Minister saying that this is a short Bill. It may be a short Bill, but, as others have pointed out, it is long on implications. We do not know whether this will be the case, but we could find ourselves with a conflict between the courts and the House of Commons. We needed to have a discussion about that.
We heard from the Deputy Prime Minister today that there might be options to delay, but the only example he gave was the delay of the local government elections in 2001 because of foot and mouth disease. What will the criteria be for assessing whether the Prime Minister should exercise the right to delay? Also, although it has been said that we will have ample opportunity to discuss the Bill and change it over two days of debate in this House, that is no substitute for a proper discussion of, and investigation into, the ramifications of this constitutional Bill.
As the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire said-he will be astonished that I have now mentioned him twice in my contribution-the issue of the clash
with the elections for the devolved Parliament and Assemblies should not be underestimated. That is nothing to do with the intelligence of the electorate; it is to do with the democratic integrity of those Assemblies and that Parliament. They have their own democratic remit and integrity, and we should not undermine that by overlaying our elections on top of theirs.
Frankly, this is a dog's dinner of a Bill. I have seen some dog's dinners in government, but this one takes the biscuit. [ Laughter. ] The dog biscuit. It would have been a far better Bill if the Deputy Prime Minister had listened to the advice of wiser heads than his own. Frankly, the Deputy Prime Minister is no Lord Grey; he is no Whig reformer. He needs to go back to the drawing board, and he needs to ensure that the Bill that comes before this House on Third Reading is far better than the one in front of us today.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to today's debate, as political and constitutional reform remains a key objective for this new Parliament. I shall, however, try to be brief as I am conscious of the fact that time is limited.
It is of the utmost importance that Members on both sides of the House consider the current state of our politics when addressing this Bill. It is fair to suggest that now, following the general election, it is time for this Parliament to move on from the recent depressing chapter in our political history. I believe that we cannot reflect on the current state of our politics and deny that some form of constitutional reform is required. All of us in this House are now charged with the responsibility of restoring the public's trust in our democracy and I welcome this Bill.
Some powerful arguments and good points have been made by Members on both sides of the House, and I must confess to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that I did not have anything to say about fixed-term Parliaments in my election address. However, I have been an enthusiastic supporter of fixed-term Parliaments since long before I was elected to the House, and I have always supported this Bill. I consider the current process for the Dissolution of Parliament to be outdated. Under current legislation, the Government of the day retain the ability to call an election as and when they choose within a parliamentary term, subject to the Monarch's approval. I fear that that provides any Government with an unfair advantage, and often encourages a crude, tactical political game to take place. As such, I strongly support the Prime Minister for taking the principled decision to give up his privileged ability to call an election. His absolute commitment to political reform cannot be doubted-but I do not think that was shared by his predecessor.
As set out under the Bill, the date of the next general election is to be 7 May 2015. Such a simple piece of reform immediately provides voters with greater clarity and understanding about their political system. To my mind, voters deserve to know when they can expect to re-elect or ditch their Government.
However, it is also essential for Parliament to retain the ability to hold the Government to account and, if necessary, force an early election, and I believe that that
controversial issue has now been brought to a satisfactory conclusion through the provisions in clause 2. Ultimately, the House will be able to force an early election by either a vote of no confidence in the Government or a vote of at least two-thirds of all Members in favour of such an early election.
This Chamber's power will be protected, and I support the fact that the Bill deliberately seeks to weaken the hand of the Executive while injecting an element of reassurance and transparency into our often turbulent political world. It is not just the political village here in Westminster that will benefit from the stability of fixed-term Parliaments; the wider world of business will benefit, too. For too long, Prime Ministers have been able to call an election that suits their own political ends, yet such uncertainty and speculation often cause instability in our economic markets, which are constantly wary of potential political upheaval.
The most obvious example, which has been mentioned by hon. Members already, is the negativity that can flow from such an occurrence. Such negativity flowed from the threat of an election back in September 2007, when many of us in this Chamber were still candidates. The previous Prime Minister used the threat of an election as a political weapon in my view-a tactic that eventually backfired spectacularly, creating uncertainty in the country and in our economic markets while disrupting important parliamentary business.
Julian Sturdy: No, my point is that political uncertainty in the process that we have had-and that we had in 2007-can cause economic uncertainty. That is obviously bad news for our economy. Putting the election on a firm footing through fixed-term Parliaments benefits our business colleagues and our economy as well as Parliament.
Julian Sturdy: I do not believe that at all. This is part of a constitutional reform that must bring back trust to our politics. That is why I am supporting it: we need to bring the public back in line with this House. This is not the full picture, but it is part of that process. That is why I will support the Bill this evening.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): Here we are in the second week of the great Liberal Democrat benefit sitting with a measure that is even sillier than the ones we brought in during the first week, with another fix from the gerrymander unit at Cowley street-I do not know why they do not just call it Tammany hall and have done with it-to try to fix the constitution to keep the coalition in power.
We have all been dreadfully mealy-mouthed about this measure, saying that it is a constitutional measure and that we should consider it seriously and make changes, but we are kidding ourselves. It is not a constitutional measure at all. It is a post-nuptial contract. Here we have two parties in a loveless shotgun marriage that do not really trust each other, so they are bringing in a Bill to make divorce more difficult. That is what it is all about.
The hon. Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) spoke about building trust, but the whole point of this Bill is that they do not trust each other. The Liberal Democrats do not trust the Conservatives-they fear that they will be dumped when they have made themselves sufficiently unpopular by betraying all their principles, all their friends and all their supporters-whereas the Conservatives are afraid that the Liberal Democrats will get cold feet and pull the plug on the coalition because they cannot stand the heat of the cuts, because the alternative vote is defeated leaving them with nothing left to show for the thing or because they want to stop redistribution. Because of that lack of trust, we get this rather silly and unnecessary Bill, and I certainly hope to vote against it tonight.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats said that we could be absolutely confident that the courts would not be able to interfere, in the same way as he told us that we could be absolutely confident that the cuts would not damage the poor and would not hurt the north. He said that we could have absolute confidence in all that but I am ceasing to have any confidence in the Deputy Prime Minister and his declarations of absolute confidence. The simple point about the courts intervening is that we do not have in the Bill a definition of a vote of confidence. What is a vote of confidence? The courts could well rule on that. As it has to be certified by the Speaker, the courts could rule on the question of whether the certificate is valid. Most importantly, I am against the Bill because it extends the life of a Parliament. That is the exact opposite of what we need to do.
The average Parliament lasts about four years and has done so since the war. It has lasted for three years and eight months if we date it from 1832. Four years was the period envisaged by Asquith when the Septennial Act 1715 was repealed by the Parliament Act 1911. Four years was the period in the Liberal Democrat agenda. The policy paper for the 2007 conference, "For the People, By the People", argued:
"Liberal Democrats have long argued that parliaments should last for a fixed term of four years."
There we are-that is a clear statement. I ask the Liberal Democrats if there is any principle they are not prepared to betray. They have already betrayed their preference for proportional representation in favour of the alternative vote and now they are betraying their preference for four-year Parliaments.
Four years was also the term that the Labour party envisaged when it was in our manifesto, although I must admit that I did not read it; I did not even remember that it was in our manifesto. I do not read much of the manifestos but as it was in one, we should have some deference for that, I suppose. Why should we extend the term to five years? Is it because the Government are so afraid that the vandalism that they are doing to the benefit system, with the cuts to welfare, and to the economy will make them so unpopular that they will
have to sit things out for five years? Is it because they will not be able to face the people before then? That is the only reason I can think of for extending it to five years.
I would like parliamentary terms to be reduced not to four years, which seems to be the opinion of the wiseacres, but to three. We should contract the terms and have triennial Parliaments as was the case at the end of the 17th century before they were extended to seven years.
Austin Mitchell: As a Member who came in on the wave of opinion produced by the Chartists-it seems that long ago-I will not go to the extreme of saying that we should have annual Parliaments, but the American House of Representatives is elected every two years; there is a radical proposal. I am being very moderate. Let us have three-yearly elections as we used to have in the 17th century and as they have in Australia and New Zealand. I have spent a long time in New Zealand lecturing in political science and praising the three-year term, which works very well. The virtue of a three-year term is that it keeps Parliament in close touch with the people.
We all remember the explosion of misunderstanding that hit us recently-the alienation, apathy and demands that we should get in touch with the people. We had immured ourselves in the Westminster bubble or glasshouse and people had to throw stones at the glass to break in to us. We were out of touch with the people. That was the massive cry that we heard last year and in the election this year. In Grimsby, when I go down to the docks or around the houses, people say, "It's lovely to see you; you come so often-you shouldn't trouble yourself to come as much as you do," but other Members have told me that when they go canvassing, people say, "Oh, you only come when there's an election. There must be an election, because we never see you between elections." That was part of the explosion of mistrust between the people and Parliament that occurred last year.
How do we get around that problem? The Power report, three years back, indicated the massive degree of alienation, the massive misunderstanding and ignorance about politics and the massive mistrust of politicians. People think that politicians are in politics only to further their own ends and to enrich themselves. How do we get around that? We can do so by bringing ourselves into closer touch with the people through triennial elections, as works well in New Zealand. There is no more effective way of keeping a Government under control, ensuring that the Government serve the causes of the people and that MPs work for the people-that we do our duty in our constituencies-than having three-year Parliaments. That is what we need.
I will not go on; I have only a couple more points to make. The measure has been described as binding, but of course it is not. An extension of the parliamentary term could easily be repealed by the next Parliament because Parliament cannot bind itself. Indeed, it could be amended in this Parliament-if the Liberal Democrats do want to break away at some stage they could bear that in mind. The measure does not abolish the Prime Minister's power. There is the example of what Schröder
did in Germany in 2005. He arranged a vote of confidence, told his Ministers not to support the Government and was defeated so that he could have an election. That case went to the constitutional court to decide whether it was legal. There could be a similar situation here, with, as the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has said, MPs from the Back Benches being sent on lovely trips to the Seychelles, so those safeguards do not apply.
The main point is that we have an opportunity to bring ourselves closer to the people. We should ratify and accept the power that they wanted. There was alienation in 2009 and 2010. Let us get close to the people; let us have triennial Parliaments.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): We last debated this matter in the House on 16 May 2008. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) said earlier this evening, on that occasion the Conservative Opposition did not oppose the Bill. I know that because I was speaking for the Opposition on that day. We said the matter was worthy of exploration and discussion and that we did not oppose the principle of fixed-term Parliaments.
"A cross-party organisation called Fixed Term was set up in October 2007...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...are in favour of it."-[ Official Report, 16 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1714.]
Well, times change- [ Interruption. ] Don't they just. I do not know what the percentages are today, but there are good reasons for the Bill and I am happy to support it. However, that does not mean I shall not criticise it.
When the Deputy Prime Minister introduced the proposals some months ago, he said that the Bill was intended to strengthen the power of the House. I do not believe that it does so. At the moment, the House can bring about Dissolution by a simple majority, but the Bill will require in most cases a two-thirds majority. I do not believe that the Bill takes power away from the Executive and gives it to the House. That does not mean the Bill is fatally flawed; it just means that we ought to look at what it really does and not pretend that it gives more power to Parliament.
I draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), to the concern we debated earlier and which was raised by the Clerk of the House before the Select Committee. I am honoured to be a member of the Committee and I endorse what its Chairman said earlier in the debate. Despite what the Deputy Prime Minister said earlier, it is possible that the Bill could bring about judicial review of events that occur and decisions that are taken in the House. I do not want to see that happen, not just as a matter of principle but because it disturbs the stability of the constitution and of the House. I sincerely hope that the Deputy Prime Minister and my hon. Friend have taken into consideration
the concerns expressed by the House today and by the Select Committee and that we will return to these matters in Committee.
The evidence put before the House today is not conclusive. It is one legal opinion against another legal opinion, and the integrity of the House and what happens here should not be left in the balance between one legal opinion and another. I sincerely hope that the Minister will consider that point in Committee.
Mr Cash: Does my hon. Friend accept that it is possible that the very fact that the Clerk of the House of Commons has taken one view and that other lawyers have taken another view-albeit in a strange sequence-could be a reason why a court would be more than concerned to issue a judgment in its jurisdiction?
Mrs Laing: Yes. As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important legal point and we must not lose sight of it. We must remember that at one level we can have party political banter and House of Commons arguments, but at another level we must respect the stability of our constitution. It is not just a matter of legal opinion but of consulting the law properly. I am sure that what my hon. Friend has just said will be taken into consideration by Ministers.
There is no harm in being honest about matters in the Chamber. The measure is entitled "Fixed-term Parliaments Bill", but no Parliament can bind its successors. The measure is really "The date of the next election (cementing the coalition) Bill". That is what it is for, and I support it for that purpose, but we should not pretend that it is for any other purpose. It has many practical advantages, which are obvious and have been debated well this evening. The stability of the coalition and of the Government to get this country out of the dreadful economic mess in which the Labour Government left us requires such a Bill if we are to make progress.
Mrs Laing: That is exactly the point that I am about to make. We are discussing the transfer of power, and the Bill brings about the transfer of immense power to the person of the Deputy Prime Minister. As the hon. Gentleman has just said, the arithmetic shows that the 14-day process could be instigated under the Bill. It is perfectly possible that as early as next spring the Liberal Democrat party could decide not to support the Conservative party in coalition. We could go into the 14-day period, and a coalition could be formed by the Labour party, all the other Opposition parties, and the Liberal Democrat party. There could be a completely new Government without our consulting the electorate. That could happen in the foreseeable future, although I sincerely hope that it does not. I do not think that it is likely, but the arithmetic means that it is possible, and we must be aware of that as we introduce the Bill.
The Opposition have been self-righteous in their criticism of the way in which the Government are introducing constitutional change. Let us not forget the piecemeal way in which the Labour Government brought about constitutional change. Indeed, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill that they introduced received about 18 months of pre-legislative scrutiny. It was introduced in the House, and completed all its stages in plenty of time. Half an hour before Third Reading, the Labour Government introduced about 100 pages of amendments. The Bill went to the House of Lords, and just before its final consideration, they added an entire new Bill on a referendum on the alternative vote. The Opposition should therefore be careful in their self-righteousness about the way in which we conduct pre-legislative scrutiny. Having said that, I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Select Committee-he had no responsibility for the previous Government, or very little, I think.
It is wrong to introduce constitutional change in a piecemeal fashion. We should look at the overall effect of the legislation before us, not just the particular issue that is under consideration. It is wrong, at any time, to do constitutional change in one place, then in another. We ought to look at the whole constitution to see how it is balanced. It is, however, our duty in the House to do not what is the short-term expedient but what is in the long-term right. I am willing to put aside that important principle this evening for the greater good of the stability of the coalition and the stability that that brings to our country. I therefore urge my hon. Friends to support the Bill.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate about the future of this place and our place in society. It is a pleasure to listen to so many speeches about various aspects of the Bill and to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who spoke for eight minutes about aspects of the Bill, but by the end I could not understand many of the things that were praiseworthy about it.
The Bill, which is one of a series of major constitutional measures to be introduced by the Tory-Lib Dem Government, represents a short-term compromise to hold together two coalition partners, but with a long-term hangover, or a series of hangovers, as the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged today. Our constitutional settlement has emerged and endured. Over the generations, the wash of constitutional change has flowed over the rock that is Parliament, sometimes gently eroding and reshaping. At other times in violent squalls our settlement has been remodelled. The Bill, alongside the Bill that we discussed previously, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, places high explosives under that rock, and the Tory Government, propped up by Liberals, are perfectly happy to light the fuse. Perhaps there are legitimate arguments for doing so. Perhaps the Conservatives are true revolutionaries. I would like everyone's voices to be heard first and to proceed by consensus.
The previous Government took the view that constitutional change reflects the fact that we are custodians of that consensus, not masters of it. In other words, they sought to proceed by consultation, even at the cost of measures such as House of Lords reform failing to go forward. The present Government are content fundamentally to redesign major aspects of our constitution with limited consultation and scrutiny, at a time when our constitution is evolving by convention as a result of events, and largely for their own short-term gain. That cannot be right.
I cannot support the Bill in its current form. Even if the case can be made for fixed-term Parliaments, safeguards in the Bill serve to take power from Parliament, rather than give it back to this body. Without a Green Paper, a White Paper, a draft Bill or pre-legislative scrutiny, we are being asked to agree a big practical change to the way that our Government and Parliament act. That cannot be right, either.
Gavin Shuker: I am happy to clarify that. If there is a Division on Second Reading, I will vote with my conscience. I do not believe that this is the right Bill and I shall explain why in more detail.
The Bill is the wrong prescription for a problem of the Government's own making. If they were truly committed to giving power back to Parliament, they would give us a free vote on the length of the term. They would consult prior to the publication of the Bill. They would seek to bring the Opposition parties with them, but they have not done so.
"probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years"-[ Official Report, 21 February 1911; Vol. 21, c. 1749.]
One hundred years on, I find no fault in his analysis and no credit in the Deputy Prime Minister's interpretation of his words earlier today. I was tempted to intervene and point out that I had known H. H. Asquith, and that he was no H. H. Asquith.
If the Bill is passed in its current form, we will see four-year Parliaments, followed by one-year election campaigns. The mood of the British people is not for that. Most European countries have four-year cycles, and I believe that the disinterested consensus in the House would be for four years. Four years is surely better than five. Even so, I accept that under the amendment to be moved tonight, which would introduce a four-year term, the risk of a lame duck Parliament looms large. It is an inevitable cost of having a fixed term for our Parliament, and it deserves far greater discussion than it will receive today.
Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says that most European countries have four-year Parliaments. Is he aware that France and Italy, as well as South Africa, have five-year Parliaments, and that two of the last three Parliaments in this country have lasted for five years?
Gavin Shuker: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which the Deputy Prime Minister made earlier. Perhaps we should not take that as the primary decider for how we set that term. We could look at how good or bad those five-year Parliaments were, a matter which I am sure many Conservative Members will wish to raise.
Let us be clear as to what drives the Damascene conversion of the Liberal Democrats from a four-year fixed term to five, and of the Conservatives who had no measure in their manifesto to bring this about. It is to prevent the Government Members from breaking out in a "West Side Story" style gang fight before the next election. The British people should not have to pay such a high price for their lack of self-discipline. The constitution should not be forced to endure such breakneck change. By seeking to serve themselves, the Government have done a disservice to the people whom they claim to serve.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker). I agree with much of what he had to tell the House. I also very much agree with the two brilliant speeches that we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox).
I became involved in this debate quite early on in this Parliament when I was lucky enough to be called to move the first Adjournment debate of this Parliament on 25 May on the subject of the Dissolution of Parliament. On that occasion there was a lot of ridicule of the Government in relation to the proposal for a 55% threshold and a binding motion relating to that. The Deputy Leader of the House, who is on the Front Bench now, responded to that debate and asserted that it was absolutely important to stick to the 55% commitment because it was in the manifesto, and so on.
I am delighted that the coalition had second thoughts, and I hope that it will have second thoughts about a lot of this Bill as well. But I am very concerned that a couple of things that the hon. Gentleman said on that occasion have not been borne out by tonight's proceedings. He said that there would be a second opportunity, after the debate on the original motion, to consider the constitutional legislation. He said:
"Unlike what happened under the previous Administration, it will not be guillotined."
We will see what happens at the end of two days of debate, but if at the end of those two days not all the amendments have been reached, the only consequence will be that it will be guillotined, and the only consequence that will flow from that is that what the hon. Gentleman said on that occasion will not be capable of delivery. I am happy to allow him to intervene on me now to put the record straight and say that if at the end of two days' debate we have not covered all the ground, we will get extra time from the Government.
"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...to the legislation in due course",
"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...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."-[ Official Report, 25 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 147-152.]
In the light of what has been announced today, that gives us, on my understanding, about 18 months in which we can consider this Bill in detail. I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House did not have that in mind at that stage, because this Government seem to think things up as they go along, but now he realises that there will possibly be a two-year first Session of this Parliament, would he like to intervene to assure me that as a result there will be more time to discuss this Bill?
I am particularly keen that there should be more time to discuss the interaction between the Bill and the proposed changes to the other place. If we were to have an elected Second Chamber, on what basis would we have those elections? When would they be held? How would they interact with the fixed-term Parliament arrangements that we are discussing? It seems as though, almost by design, the Government are legislating in a piecemeal fashion so that this Bill will be out of the way before we are able to ask any questions about the interaction between it and the proposals they are going to bring forward in the form of a draft Bill at the turn of the year. This is an extremely serious matter. I despair at the fact that the Government seem to think they can pull the wool over the eyes of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
This Bill is unnecessary. Why is the Prime Minister's word that he will not go to the country until 7 May 2015 not good enough? It is certainly good enough for me; why is it not good enough for other people? As we heard in the evidence from the Clerk of the House, if there is a desire to give some sort of quasi-statutory backing to these proposals, that could easily be achieved by changing the Standing Orders of the House. The Bill challenges and undermines the historic right of this House to vote a Government out of office with a bare majority. In the Select Committee we heard evidence from Professor Blackburn, who was in favour of a simple majority in order to bring a Parliament to an end if that were the wish of the people. Why do we not trust Members of this House? Why do we not trust the people? I can remember when Ted Heath thought he was acting in his own self-interest and went to the people, and the people had a different view. That is exactly what happens if one trusts the people-why tinker with the constitution in this way?
I am very concerned about this Bill, and I am sorry that, for the second occasion in as many weeks, I will not be supporting the Government in the Lobby tonight. However, that is not a consequence of my failure to follow our manifesto-it is a consequence of the Government introducing legislation that was never in the manifesto. Indeed, in the middle of the election campaign the Prime Minister made a comment that was totally at odds with the current proposals. I could not follow what the Deputy Prime Minister said about how the Bill effectively builds on what the Prime Minister
said on that occasion about having a general election within six months of a change of Prime Minister. That would be more popular and more understandable; perhaps we could make that amendment to the Bill. Instead, the Government seem to want to ensure that this Parliament continues not only for a five-year period but perhaps even for a couple of weeks beyond that. It is not justified, and it is completely over the top. In the end, this sort of behaviour by the Government-the high-handed procedural way in which they are trying to force this legislation through, and its content-will be their own undoing.
I want to address in particular the length of the proposed fixed terms and how, by choosing the dates that have been chosen, we are running into totally unnecessary conflict with the devolved Parliaments. In opening the debate, the Deputy Prime Minister suggested that he had now realised there was an issue with this. When he came to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee before the recess, that issue was pointed out to him very clearly, but until today he appeared to have chosen to ignore it or to brush it off as irrelevant.
There may have been confusion in some people's minds between the potential coincidence of next year's Scottish Parliament elections and the AV vote and the potential clash in 2015. There are some problems with both things, but I concede that next year's clash is not in any way as serious as the potential clash in 2015 and the one that would come along some years further into the future, although most of us would probably not be around to deal with it-not as elected Members, at least.
The coincidence of the two general elections is a serious issue. I do not know whether everybody is aware that in Scotland a decision has been taken to move the local elections, which should have been due next year, to another year, to avoid the clash that happened in 2007; that was between local elections and the Scottish Parliament election. We have already made that move, only to discover that in some ways it has been completely undone by what might be allowed to happen here in Westminster.
The matter has been raised not only by the Select Committee but by many other commentators and it should have been addressed before now. There is no reason not to address it. Given that the bulk of the information and evidence that has come to the Select Committee also supports four-year terms, the easiest way out of the difficulty is for the Bill to be amended to allow for such terms. All the complications about whether to have the elections a month apart, which, as the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) said, would be absolutely ludicrous, or six months apart, which would be equally unacceptable, would disappear if we set four-year terms in train.
The change would be simple to make and it would be nice to think that we could carry it out without getting into complicated cross-jurisdictional issues about election dates. The elections are different and the issues are very different. It is undoubtedly true that the issues that the devolved Parliaments would want people to pay attention to will simply be swamped if there is a Westminster general election at the same time. I do not mean that we
as politicians would cause that to happen; the media, however, would certainly concentrate on what they would see, rightly or wrongly, as the big election.
Let us not underestimate the differences between boundaries. When the Scottish Parliament elections take place next year, my Westminster constituency will have four different MSPs in it; that is how different the boundaries are. These are no minor differences.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Lady has just verified the criticisms that many of us made in respect of the importance of coterminosity between one legislature and another. I hope she will agree that that ought to be borne in mind by future Governments.
Sheila Gilmore: We appear to have lost coterminosity entirely in Scotland, and that is an issue because the situation there is making it extremely difficult for people to have more engagement in politics and a better relationship with their elected representatives. When I tell people, "I am your Westminster MP, but this person will be the candidate for that part of the constituency, although not in your sister's area, which is not that far away," it is difficult to make them understand. We also have local government boundaries, which are completely different again.
I am not necessarily saying that we have to change the situation in Scotland immediately; we are learning to live with our different boundaries. However, there is absolutely no need to walk into the situation that I have described. A simple change, backed up by the evidence, to a four-year fixed term, would cure the problem. I hope that the Government will at least consider the issue again-and quickly, so we can get it out of the way.
Obviously, there are other issues. I am not qualified to comment on the detail of some of them, but they are important and we need to spend time on them during the passage of the Bill. I hope that at last the Government have heard the question.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I fear that the hon. Lady is perhaps underestimating the sophistication and intelligence of her constituents and those in the rest of Scotland. The evidence seems to suggest that when elections have coincided-for instance, the local elections on 6 May this year and the county council elections previously that coincided with general elections-people have been discerning and have made separate decisions. I would vouchsafe that that was the case in Scotland.
Sheila Gilmore: I am not suggesting that people cannot make separate decisions, but there are practical difficulties. However, over and above those difficulties-which we saw clearly in 2007 and because of which we have taken a step to move elections apart-the overwhelming objection is that we would be in danger of drowning or swamping the important issues of the different legislatures. That is important for what we have built up under devolution. I may now be an elected representative in this place, but those of us who fought hard for devolution did not do so to see everything disappearing in the way that it would in such elections. That is why we should simply amend the Bill to have four-year terms. Then I would be much more supportive of it than I am in its present form.
Mark Durkan: Did my hon. Friend not previously give an answer to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), when she said that the issue was not whether voters could cope with the different issues, but whether the media could handle the spread of coverage and, in particular, whether the broadcast media could handle the detailed legal requirements for balanced coverage, which would be almost impossible to achieve if those elections were melodeoned together?
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): This has been a fascinating five hours of debate, and I have learned a great deal. I have been vastly entertained, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), but I have to admit to being somewhat puzzled. I thought that I would hear the great champions of parliamentary privilege and parliamentary sovereignty-
Nick Boles: One of the great champions has not been called, but he has certainly intervened many times, and we have heard from other great champions, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope). I thought that I would hear them make an argument for giving Parliament even more control over matters as vital to our democracy as the timing of elections, but no. We have been given an object lesson in that great phrase "looking a gift horse in the mouth".
I just wonder what would have happened to the Government if they had come to the House with a proposal to abolish elections altogether or to abolish the role of the Speaker in deciding whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be dragged here to answer an urgent question. Imagine what our reaction would have been then. I listen to the criticism that has been made-that the proposal is somehow fragmentary and piecemeal-and I ask myself whether those critics have any education in the history of our constitution at all. I am the least historically educated person I know, but I know that this country has only ever made change fragmentarily, in a piecemeal fashion and for naked partisan political interests. We even invented an entire new Church-the leader of the Church from which we separated ourselves is about to come to this country, and we welcome him very much-just to enable our sovereign to marry somebody whom he fancied rather more than his wife at the time.
That was just the starting point for a whole generation of constitutional change, so let us not deny the value of fragmentary and piecemeal constitutional change. Let us instead take advances when we get them, and if they are in the interest of the Government proposing them, let us be grateful for the fact that that interest is so well aligned with the interest of this House.
"Does it enhance the power of the House of Commons at all?"
"I am not sure that it does."
My hon. Friend's question leads me neatly to my next point. With much more trepidation, I have to say that I respectfully disagree with what the Clerk of the House said in his contribution to our evidence about the risks posed by the Bill. I recognise that I am probably the least qualified person here to comment on orders of this House, and on the risks of judicial review that the proposed statute might create, because I am not a lawyer, a long-standing MP or a constitutional historian. However, it seemed inadequate for the Clerk of the House to suggest putting this fundamental provision into the statutes of the House-the orders of the House, as I believe they are called-because surely the House can do away with those orders on a relative whim.
The one advantage of the statute that the Government are proposing is that it will have to make its way through the other House. Any further changes will also therefore have to make their way through the other House, and we have a commitment from the Deputy Prime Minister that we will see full-scale reform of that other House before the next election, to which the Bill would apply.
Mr George Howarth: The hon. Gentleman is making a witty and amusing speech, but does he really believe that the courts inevitably act in a totally rational way in all circumstances? My experience of them, certainly in matters of this kind, is that they can be very capricious.
Nick Boles: I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman on that point-I should like to call him my right hon. Friend; I am very keen on people joining the coalition, as Members might know-but I am not sure whether the courts are any more capricious than Members of this House. Is that a terrible thing to say?
I am troubled by the proposal of the Clerk of the House, and I fear that those on my own side who advance it are doing so not because they really think that he has a better way to secure fixed-term Parliaments but because they do not believe in fixed terms, and they want to undermine the Bill. If it is going to be brought in, they want it to be introduced in as weak a form as possible. So let us not be deluded by that argument.
I want to turn briefly to the argument about election dates. I shall approach the subject with great deference to those who represent parts of the other nations of the United Kingdom, because they of course must be the ones who speak for their constituents. However, in the United States-a place where individual states have much more power and at least as much sense of their own independence and individual character-all the elections always happen on the same day. In that fine democracy, they happen on the first Thursday in November, either every four years or every two years. In the United States, people would consider it a constitutional outrage if elections were to happen on any other day.
If elections were held on different days, minor elections-I do not venture to suggest that elections to the devolved Assemblies are minor; I am talking about any that people thought were minor-might be used to express an opinion about a major subject, such as the economic policy of the UK Government. It is only by having elections on the same day that people can be guaranteed
an ability to express their opinion on every issue that matters to them, be it local, regional or pertaining to their state, their governor, their mayor or the Government of the day. The same applies to referendums, which is why I also support the idea of their being held on the same day. I venture to suggest that hon. Members should really question whether they are assisting the independence of their local elections, and the autonomy of the decision making on the issues in those elections, by proposing separate election dates. I fear that they might achieve the reverse.
Mark Durkan: The hon. Gentleman referred to the United States of America, where there are no rules on media balance and supposedly no statutory protections for parties in the broadcast media or anywhere else, and where massive amounts of money are spent. The electoral climate in the United States is entirely different from ours. If he is suggesting that elections to our devolved Parliament and Assemblies and to this Parliament should be conducted in the way they are in America, what does he think the turnout would be?
Nick Boles: If people have to go to the polls only once and have to take seven decisions that will affect every single part of government, I suggest that that will make them more likely to vote in the "lower" elections than they would if those elections took place on their own, particularly when people might be busy, have to take the kids to school and get to work. I suspect that the turnout would advance, but let me make it clear that the Deputy Prime Minister has said that he will want to understand the concerns and that the final decision will be made in consultation with the devolved Assemblies.
In the remaining time available, let me deal with one suggestion-for an amendment to the Bill-made by the Select Committee, of which I am lucky enough to be a member. I hope that the Government will consider it in further stages. The suggestion was that, after an extraordinary or exceptional Dissolution, to avoid any jiggery-pokery or any attempt to engineer a Dissolution to the benefit of one party, the term of whatever Government came in after that Dissolution would be just for the balance of the normal term. If the extraordinary Dissolution came after three years, there would be only two years left for the succeeding Government. I think that might go some way to reinforce the Bill's intention to ensure that a Dissolution is not done in a frivolous, arbitrary or partisan way.
In conclusion, let me say that that is the only amendment that I would propose and that I propose it in the spirit of improvement rather than criticism. I very much hope that Members will see fit to support this fine Bill.
Bills of this nature rankle. If I think about it seriously, this looks like an attempt to entrench a Government. On that basis alone, I would vote against it, as it is not my intention to prolong beyond its natural life, the life of any Government. I have listened to two interesting
speeches, which I contrast. The first was that of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), which took me back to the schoolroom. I listened carefully; this was the constitution I learned as I was growing up. The speech also reminded me of my undergraduate years, and of when I came here and saw all those things cast aside by a simple vote.
Tony Benn has articulated more clearly than anyone else that it is no longer the monarch that is crucial; the Crown resides in Downing street. That is what this Bill is about and, in a sense, has always been about. We changed our Administrations by slaughter on battlefields and then we evolved a constitution. I will follow that constitution to the end.
I have no problem with fixed-term Parliaments, but how does the Bill relate to the constitutional programme put forward by an inept Deputy Prime Minister who cannot bring coherent constitutional measures to the Floor of the House? How does this Bill integrate with the supposed reform of the House of Lords, which is going to be elected? All these issues need to be thought through, but that is not happening. That is why it is legislation on the back of an envelope. There is a cheerful cynicism about it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) suggested, and he is talking the truth.
This has always been a place that has had its machinations and purposes, with Governments striving to last for longer. Everything said by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Select Committee Chairman, was in a sense trying to identify what was the ideal. I have reverence for the constitution that was, but that went. We had 13 years of the Labour party bringing forth constitutional measures on the back of an envelope time and again. I saw the corruption of this Chamber. I saw the spirit of this House, which the Select Committee Chairman wants to revive. This House still holds all the power and sovereignty of this country should it wish to exercise it. That is all it has ever been about. If we conspire and work together, we can overthrow Governments, or Governments can come to the end of their time.
As I said last week, I support this coalition because it is the agent by which I hope to see sensible economic, budgetary responses to the dire situation we are in. However, we are confronted with the cheerful cynicism of the Front Bench: "How do we protect ourselves in office?" That is what I feel that this is about. I do not want the people of Aldridge-Brownhills, who sent me here, to be forced to live under a Government extended by an artificial device when that Government's time has gone. The Government have the Parliament Act 1911, which gives them five years if they can make the course and hold the attention of each of us as individual Members from constituencies across the country-and I hope they can. However, they can do it without this half-baked legislation.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con):
The Bill was not in the manifesto, and the Prime Minister effectively conceded the case against it some time ago. In addition, there has been no consultation whatever. As I have said, far from giving more power to Parliament, which I regard as a wholly disingenuous argument, it gives more power to the Whips. I love the Whips, but they do use their power
to ensure the passage of legislation. I do not hold that against them-they have their job to do, and we have ours.
This issue is not just a matter for the coalition: there is a connection to many other legislative programmes, including the alternative vote Bill. In my judgment, despite the Liberal Democrats having reached a very low point in the polls, the Bill is largely for their benefit. On the constitutional questions that arise periodically of who governs the United Kingdom and how-whether it is on this issue, AV, or matters European-the Liberal Democrats are wagging the tail.
I endorse the concerns of the Clerk of the House, and I do not need to repeat my points on that. There should be pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills of this kind. The Bill is being brought in with precipitate haste and is fundamentally flawed. I also believe that Standing Orders would be able to deal with the issue. The idea that, on a whim, the House would reverse the Standing Orders is faintly ridiculous.
Lastly, it is fundamental that we govern ourselves in the House, because we are here on behalf of the people; it is their Parliament, not ours. If we want to subscribe to that principle, there is one simple solution: give us free votes and put it in the Standing Orders and/or in the Bill, that any legislation that contradicts the principles of the Bill should be endorsed by a free vote of the House. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be a free vote if there is any attempt to upset the arrangements of the Bill?
Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab): We have had an excellent debate, kicked off by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for the Opposition. I cannot let this debate pass without remarking on the fact that he intends that to be his final speech from the Front Bench. He has said that he will retire from the Front Bench: he has done 30 years of hard labour on the Opposition and Government Front Benches and has given distinguished service. He has been called many things: my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) referred to Barbara Castle's remarks about how he had a degree of low cunning about him. I must say that I have found him wily as I have worked for him over the past few years, and wise. I thank him for the time that he has given to junior Ministers and spokespeople. He has always been illuminating to work with, and we will all miss his speeches from the Front Bench, although I am sure that we can look forward to many more from him from the Back Benches in future.
As my right hon. Friend explained, we agree with the principle of a fixed-term Parliament, although we believe that it should be for a shorter period than the proposed five years. We had a manifesto commitment to a fixed term favouring four years, and for that reason we will not be voting against Second Reading. However, the House should not misinterpret that as anything more than our agreeing with the principle behind the Bill. We have grave concerns about many of the measures proposed in it, about its timing, and about the way in which the proposals have been developed-although "developed" may be too grand a word for a Bill that seems to have
been thrown together on the Deputy Prime Minister's whim and then repeatedly altered as each new problem has emerged, all without the slightest effort to consult anyone else. As many Members have said today, that is not a recipe for good legislation.
We shall be looking closely at the details of the Bill and suggesting amendments. Indeed, it might be better if the Government took the whole thing away and started again from scratch, given the confused and shifting mishmash that appears to be before us and that so casually sets about riding roughshod over one constitutional convention after another. Little thought seems to have been invested in the devising of a scheme that works before the appearance of legislation to implement one that probably will not. Given that the Leader of the House-who is present now-suggested this morning that the present parliamentary Session would continue for two years, why should the Government not take the opportunity to take the Bill away, consult on it properly, and return with something that is in rather fitter shape?
It is almost as if the Deputy Prime Minister does not really care whether the Bill works or not, as long as he can send a reassuring signal to his parliamentary party and his Tory ministerial collaborators that this Parliament will last for five years, whatever the strains-which are already showing-may be in the interim. The rapidly changing provisions, the substantial but unthought-through shifts that we have already witnessed, the thoughtless interference with long-standing constitutional conventions which have been mentioned by many Members on both sides of the House, the indecent haste with which a major constitutional Bill has been introduced when there was no need for it to be rushed through the House, the total lack of consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny referred to not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chair of the Select Committee-all those things make us suspicious about what the true motivations might be.
So what is really going on behind the overblown rhetoric of the Prime Minister and, in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister, who specialises in it, about the purpose of their constitutional innovations? The Prime Minister says that he wants to give power away, while the Deputy Prime Minister says that he is embarking on a programme of constitutional reform more extensive than any since the great Reform Act. Of course, he forgets just how minimal the reforms of 1832 actually were in substance. In reality, little or no justification has been offered beyond the rhetoric.
We have heard from Members in all parts of the House-from the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), from the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) in interventions, from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) in very witty speeches, from the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) in a rather more portentous but very serious speech, and from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who has form in this regard-some alternative theories about what might be going on. The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister is using vastly overblown claims to hide a tawdry piece of fixing that took place over a few days in a testosterone-filled room packed with erstwhile political enemies who were intent on one thing: producing a political stitch-up that could deliver
government to both parties, while preventing each from double-crossing the other for the duration of a Parliament. The fact that they decided to do that by using novel constitutional props is absolutely clear from the proposals that emerged.
Far from being born out of some kind of reforming zeal, and far from being derived from a carefully thought- out analysis of what is wrong with our current constitutional arrangement, the Bill was born out of a suddenly discovered political imperative to save the necks and promote the ministerial careers of those who negotiated it. That is what it looks like to us, because that is what it is. Let us have done with the overblown deputy prime ministerial rhetoric and just call a spade a spade. The long title of this Bill should be "A Bill to ensure that the inherent contradictions in the coalition Government are suppressed for a full five years; to make sure that neither party can double cross the other; and for connected purposes." That would be a bit nearer the mark.
Those Government Members who are slavishly following the Government-many are not-may protest that I am being too cynical. If I am wrong, how come such an important piece of constitutional reform was not in both parties' manifestos? It was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto; they were in favour of a four-year fixed term in their policy, but we appear to have a five-year term in the Bill. How come the Bill has not been afforded the opportunity of pre-legislative scrutiny, or preceded by a Green Paper, White Paper or draft Bill? How come it did not involve all-party consultations and discussions with a view to reaching cross-party agreement, which there may have been some possibility of reaching? How come the Bill has changed in substance more than once as the repeated announcement of ill-thought-through expedients has hit the reality of their not actually being workable or acceptable in the cold light of day?
How come the Bill is in such a poor state that the Clerk of the House has indicated that it has the potential to allow the courts, and even the European Court, to be second-guessing the Speaker, the monarch and this House on such fundamentally political issues as the date of the general election, or whether or not a confidence motion has been passed? It is not just me asking these questions. The hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) and the hon. Member for North East Somerset all asked this precise question.
The Bill contains too many novel and contentious constitutional principles to be dealt with in the arrogant and high-handed way that is becoming a hallmark of the Deputy Prime Minister's dealings with this House. The subjects that the Bill addresses are constitutionally fundamental; there is no doubt about that. It ends prerogative powers to dissolve but not to prorogue Parliament-something Charles I would probably have been able to work with-but with the potential to drag the monarch into party political controversy, which would be highly undesirable in this day and age. It introduces the novel, ill-thought-though and potentially dangerous concept of super-majorities into parliamentary proceedings.
As our Clerk has warned, and as the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon set out, the Bill puts elements of parliamentary procedure into statute, thus fundamentally changing the nature of the legislature's relationship with the judiciary by potentially forcing it
to decide what we meant to do in parliamentary proceedings that have hitherto been unavailable to judicial interpretation, thus potentially politicising the judiciary; a most undesirable outcome. The possibility of this is the danger, not the probability, as the hon. and learned Member made clear. I agree with him.
The Bill refers to confidence motions without defining them, thus potentially requiring judges to define them in court proceedings. It draws the monarch and the Speaker into the most party-political aspects of parliamentary proceedings with the obvious risk that their deliberations and actions will be tarnished with party-political controversy of a kind wholly alien to our constitutional arrangements. As we have heard from many hon. Members, the Bill has a serious impact on the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales because of the planned date of the election. If the Deputy Prime Minister had bothered to consult in advance, that particular difficulty might have been pointed out to him so that he could have avoided it.
It is reasonable for any Government to propose constitutional changes, but there is a proper and improper way of doing it. This is not the best way of handling constitutional issues. Why the rush? This is the big question that many of us have been asking during the course of the debate. There is no need for such an ill-thought-through Bill to be before us. The coalition agreement on 12 May said that there would be a "binding motion" placed before the House, whatever that is. I thought that most of our motions were binding. That was to be followed by legislation for a five-year fixed term during which a vote of 55% of Members would be needed to bring the Government down. It just so happened that the combined strength of Tory and Lib Dem Members in this Parliament is 56%, so this represented a clear effort to strengthen the Executive at the expense of the legislature, not to mention preventing the parties to the coalition agreement from ratting on each other.
The furore that ensued has led the Deputy Prime Minister to think again, and that is a good thing, but by the time of the publication of the coalition's programme for government on 20 May this remained the policy. By the Queen's Speech on 25 May, the legislation had been brought forward to be a major priority in the first Session, although we were still promised the binding motion. The Deputy Leader of the House promised it to us before the summer recess, but in the event it did not appear. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister ought occasionally to inform his ministerial colleagues about the back-flips that he plans to execute before they assure the House that the Government are going to do something that he has already decided not to do.
Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): My hon. Friend has given the House a superb explanation of why this is a rotten Bill; anyone who came into the Chamber just after she began her comments might mistakenly believe that the Labour party is opposing this Bill. She has given many good reasons why we should oppose it, but can she try to explain to me why on earth we are going to be sitting on our backsides during the Division?
My hon. Friend will do what he wants with his backside when the Division gets called; I am sure that he is capable of making his own mind up. We
have made it clear that although we are not voting against the Bill on Second Reading, whether we support it on Third Reading will depend on how well it is put right in the interim.
"We felt that"-
"was necessary on the assumption that the legislation would then come much further down the track."
Why not put the legislation further down the track, in order to enable proper consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny to take place and to allow there to be properly considered measures, with cross-party agreement, that might actually work?
By that time, the measures that the Deputy Prime Minister had announced were already unravelling, because those in the testosterone-filled room of self-interest of the coalition builders, who came up with the 55% super-majority, were so focused on protecting themselves against mutual duplicity that they failed to consider little issues such as the sovereignty of Parliament and other constitutional conventions relating to Dissolution. The proposals in the programme for government were running into the sand; all it took was the light of day and the unravelling began.
By 5 July, the Deputy Prime Minister had changed his mind again, but alas the new proposals are not better; they are just different. The 55% super-majority has been abandoned in favour of a 66% one, which appears unlikely to be used. I say in all seriousness to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), for whom I have a lot of time, because he has great difficulties in his Department: what is the rush? We are at the beginning of this Parliament, so why not consult? Why not seek cross-party agreement? What on earth is the argument against doing so? Why not have pre-legislative scrutiny on such an important constitutional Bill? Why not allow the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to do its job, instead of making it rush? Why not allow the time for concerns expressed by the Clerk about the risk to the privileges of the legislature to be properly addressed? Just asserting in the newspapers that he is wrong does not amount to a refutation of his arguments. Why was his informed advice not heeded a little more in the drafting of this Bill? Is it right that a Bill that provides for such massive constitutional innovation should be introduced five days before the House rises for the summer recess and debated one week after its return, given that the Leader of the House has just announced that this Session of Parliament will go on for two years?
The truth is that the Bill is a reflection of the Minister in charge of it and the political imperatives that led to its being devised. Our over-confident yet vacillating Deputy Prime Minister, who keeps changing his mind every few weeks about what should be in this legislation, appears armed only with his grandiose delusions of constitutional good sense and that characteristic overblown Lib Dem sense of self-importance, which all those who fight the Lib Dems at a local level will recognise very well. One wonders how much he is listening to, or absorbing and considering properly, the advice he must
be getting. This is a dangerous combination for our constitutional settlement. We cannot and should not accept that constitutional arrangements that have worked well for centuries should be thrown away hubristically and without thought by a Deputy Prime Minister who cares only for his own neck and the short-term expedient of remaining in his post for a full Parliament.
We have a Deputy Prime Minister who flits from the whim of introducing super-majorities to allowing judges to tell us whether or not we can have an election, and who does not seem to understand that the sovereignty of Parliament and the independence of the Speaker are important principles that we should defend. We have a Deputy Prime Minister who appears more interested in lofty rhetoric about how radical his constitutional innovations are than the detailed work needed to make them both desirable and workable in practice. Members of this House will have to do the work for him. Her Majesty's Opposition will play our part; we will seek to subject the Bill to the scrutiny it needs, and I also reiterate the fact that we intend to review whether to continue to support the Bill on Third Reading.
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