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Mr Stewart Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way, and he is making an engaging argument on a threadbare premise, if I may say so. Is not his argument essentially weakened by the fact that there is a mechanism to deal with an atypical event? I refer him to the controversy of 1979 over the Scotland Act 1978. That Parliament had been going for four years, and there was a vote of confidence on 28 March 1979. In other words, four-and-a-half years into that Parliament, the issue was considered of such import to the affairs of state and to the House that a motion of no confidence was tabled. Such a motion can still be tabled under this Bill. Therefore the value judgment between four and five years falls down. It would only really stand if the House had no capacity to dismiss itself and enter into a period prior to an election.
Chris Bryant: I have to presume, as does the House, that the Government will go through with all the various provisions that they have laid down in the Bill, and in clause 2 there are two provisions for an early general election: the first determines what happens if there is a motion of no confidence, although it does not say what such a motion is; and the second relates to a motion for an early general election, although it does not say whether such a motion would name the precise date of that election. The Government presume that we will need a two-thirds majority in the House to achieve an early poll, so on the Government's argument-and, if the hon. Gentleman is going to support the Bill as it is, on his argument therefore-the presupposition is that there will not be many early general elections. Indeed, the Bill, by trying to make it almost impossible to have an early general election, is much tougher than the vast majority of other constitutions that I have looked at throughout the world. That is another reason why four years is better than five. In fact, the hon. Gentleman has helped me to make part of my argument.
In relation to the intervention by the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), I believe that in practice the Bill will lengthen the Parliaments of this country. Since 1832 there have been 45 general elections: the average peacetime length has been three years and eight months, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr said; even including the lengthy wartime Parliaments of the first and second world wars, the average has been only four years; and, during the period when the maximum allowable duration under the Septennial Act was seven years, from 1832 to 1911, the average was three years and 10 months. In practice, by fixing elections as "every five years", we will lengthen Parliaments and ensure less frequent general elections.
Stephen Williams: While we are discussing historical events, will the hon. Gentleman concede that some of those shortened Parliaments occurred because of the practice, which no longer exists, that when a monarch died, Parliament was dissolved?
Chris Bryant: In fact, looking through the list, that applies to remarkably few of them. It is absolutely true that there used to be the provision that there should be a general election on the demise of the monarch. That has not pertained for quite some time, however, and it certainly does not apply to any of the general elections of the 20th century.
Ms Bagshawe: It is false to say, as the hon. Gentleman and many of his hon. Friends have said, that the aim of this Bill is to entrench the power of the Government. If the Government wish to remain in office until 2015, they need do absolutely nothing, as they already have that within their power. Does not some of the weariness in Government to which he referred-a salient point-come from endless speculation about the date of the election, as in the previous Parliament, dating from 2007 when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) ascended to the prime ministership? [ Interruption. ] I am sorry for mispronouncing Kirkcaldy. If we know that there will be a fixed date for the general election, will not that remove the endless speculation that leads to weariness in Government?
Chris Bryant: Since the hon. Lady represents Corby, she should at least be able to pronounce the names of the Scottish parliamentary constituencies, as most of her constituents are Scottish. It is a great delight to see her joining us in the debate-we have missed her for most of it thus far.
The hon. Lady's point is wrong. The main reason for large elements of the Bill, particularly in relation to when an earlier general election can be called, is the desire to keep the coalition together. That is why we had the options for 55% majorities, as originally proposed, and then 66%. It is the superglue element of the legislation, which is there wholly for cynical purposes to try to keep the coalition together. Otherwise, I suspect that there might be a point at which the leader of the hon. Lady's party might want to cut and run and get rid of her unpopular lightning conductor of a Deputy Prime Minister.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not a fixed-term Parliaments Bill that will entrench anything in the system, but rather a "fix for this Parliament" Bill that merely represents the expedient and the ephemeral embracing each other to cope with the unexpected?
I want to talk about the hon. Gentleman's statistics. Looking back at the previous century, we had two elections in 1910, elections in 1923, 1924, 1951, 1959, 1964 and 1966, and two elections in 1974. He cannot give us an argument based on an average. He needs to highlight the Parliaments that really mattered, most of which were Conservative ones,
as opposed to trying to massage his argument by bringing in Parliaments of a few months or a bit more. Funnily enough- [ Interruption. ] I was about to finish.
Chris Bryant: Funnily enough, of course I can advance an argument that is based on the average length of Parliaments, because the practical experience of voters over the past two centuries is that Parliaments have not gone on for more than four years. Therefore, if we are going to fix it for the future that they will always go on for five years, the hon. Gentleman and those who wish to take the Bill forward without amendment intend to extend Parliaments and provide for fewer general elections-that is just a fact.
Only four Parliaments since 1945 have lasted roughly five years. In three cases, a change of Prime Minister had intervened in the meantime: the Parliaments from 8 October 1959 to 15 October 1964, when Harold Macmillan handed over to Sir Alec Douglas-Home; from 11 June 1987 to 9 April 1992, when Baroness Thatcher -she was not a baroness then, obviously-handed over to John Major; and from 5 May 2005 to 6 May 2010, when Tony Blair handed over to the former Prime Minister. In addition, the longest Parliament of all in this period was John Major's, which ran from 9 April 1992 to 1 May 1997. It is difficult not to argue that in each of those cases the electorate had wanted an election before the election was eventually held.
Mr Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman think, by that measure, that the European Parliament should not have five-year terms and that they should be reduced to four years? If so, why was it not done when Labour was in government? [ Interruption. ]
I have to say that I probably agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, that would require treaty change, and I do not know whether we would then end up with a referendum, which would be very difficult for the Government.
Mrs McGuire: I may have misheard my hon. Friend, but I do not think he included the Parliament of '74 to '79, which also had a change of Prime Minister when Harold Wilson handed over to James Callaghan. Even adding in that Parliament, only six out of 16 Parliaments since the second world war ran for five years.
The second reason I think that five years is too long and four years would be better is that five years is longer, in practice, than applies virtually everywhere else, certainly within the European Union. Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and Spain all have, for their lower Houses, fixed or maximum Parliament lengths of four years.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sitting there in his rotund way- [ Interruption ] I am sorry, orotund way-and providing me with the suggestion that I might refer to France. He is absolutely right, and I will indeed come to France. He might also have mentioned, orotundly, that Italy, Austria, Malta, Cyprus and Luxembourg have provisions for five years. It is worth pointing out that in Italy there have been 17 elections for its Camera dei Deputati since 1945, and only twice in that time has the Parliament run for the full five years.
Mr Cash: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might take on board the fact that the systems of all the other countries in Europe that he has rightly cited are based on written constitutions. Does he accept that the virtue of the British system is its flexibility? Moreover, there is the example of 10 May 1940-the day I was born, as it turned out-when Chamberlain was effectively dispatched because he had completely failed and Winston Churchill took over. That was on the very day that Hitler invaded the lowlands. In other words, we make our decisions based on whether we in this House, on behalf of the people, decide that the Government have had their day.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is, in effect, making an argument against the whole of the Bill, because he is basically saying that we should not have fixed-term Parliaments. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry-he is chuntering so I cannot quite hear what he is saying. However, I disagree with him. My argument is that if we are going to have fixed-term Parliaments, they should not be of five years but of four years, partly because otherwise we will end up having the longest-running Parliaments in the European Union.
In Italy, very few Parliaments have gone on for five years because the President has the power to suspend the Parliament early. In Austria, there have been even more general elections-20-although that country has had a fixed five-year term since the war. Malta has had 16 elections since the war, and only since 1998 has it stuck to the five-year period. Cyprus has had regular changes to its constitution for a whole series of different reasons, not least in relation to Turkey. Only Luxembourg has a fixed five-year term that it has stuck to since 1974. In all these cases-I thought that this is the point that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) was going to make-the elections are held on the basis of a system of proportional representation, where there is an expectation that Parliaments might fall rather more frequently because elections do not tend to bring in one party with an absolute majority of seats in the relevant House.
Andrew Percy: As interesting as the examples from Europe are, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the countries that share our monarch and have exactly the same problems with prerogative powers and so on provide a better example of where we should be heading?
I will come on to them, and indeed they add to my argument, but I just wish to finish with France, for the further satisfaction and delight of the
hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke). As I am sure he is aware, there have been 18 general elections to the Assemblée Nationale since 1945, which in large measure is because the President has the power to suspend the Parliament early if he wants to, and has frequently done so since 1945. The only restriction is that he cannot do that if he has already done so in the past year. In effect, therefore, there is not a fixed five-year term but a maximum five-year term, and elections have been held in October, November, March and June. In fact, the number of full five-year terms has been low. Again, that makes my point that a fixed five-year term for the British Parliament will mean that we have the longest Parliaments and the least frequent general elections of any country in the European Union.
As the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, it is not just the situation in the European Union that should matter. Five years is longer than in any of the other Westminster democracies as well. As he and others have said, New Zealand and Australia have three-year terms. They are not actually fixed terms in either case, they are maximum three-year terms, and I know that plenty of people there would like to be able to change to a four-year term because they think that three years is too short a time. In practice, three years ends up being a fixed term, because who would want to have elections more frequently than that? He is also right about Canada, where there is a four-year term.
However, there are some exceptions. I thought that the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell would leap up and ask, "What about India?" The Lok Sabha, whose Members are elected in a similar way to ours in the sense that there are single-member constituencies, is elected for a maximum of five years. However, leaving aside the suspension of elections during the state of emergency from 1975 to 1977, there have been Parliaments of one, two, three or four years on several occasions since 1952. In practice, because it is quite easy to hold early general elections in India, it does not feel as though there is a fixed term of five years. Again, we will be going longer than most.
In South Africa, the National Assembly has supposedly been elected for five years ever since independence, but every term between 1966 and 1989 lasted four years or less-some might say "fewer", but it depends on how one looks at it.
Chris Bryant: Unless the hon. Gentleman is going to support us on amendments to clause 2-I look forward to his arguments, because we will have to ensure that he is consistent-he must accept that the Bill provides tough measures to ensure that the calling of an early general election will be pretty difficult, if not virtually impossible, given the parliamentary system.
To continue with Parliaments in the Westminster-style democracies, Papua New Guinea has consistently had fixed-term elections every five years since 1972, but it has more than 20 political parties, and only one party in the Papua New Guinean Parliament has more than eight members out of the 109. Again, that is a very different situation.
I therefore point out to Members that since the 1970s the only two places that have stuck to five year Parliaments, which are what the Bill is intended to give us on a permanent basis, are Papua New Guinea and Luxembourg. I just do not think that they provide an appropriate model. Even in the Dáil, which obviously has a five-year term and has done since 1923, the average term has been three years and three months. I argue that the Government are trying to extend the practical length of Parliaments, which is inappropriate.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr referred to Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh elections. His amendment 11 refers to the elections in 2015. I do not know whether the Government want to have a lot of elections on the same day, or whether they want to try to separate elections out consistently. In the USA, as several hon. Members have said, there is a deliberate constitutional construction to ensure that a lot of elections happen at the same time on the same day, on a two-yearly cycle. That is not the model that we have tended to adopt in the UK, although we have ended up with local elections, and now the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections, happening on the first Thursday in May.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that different constituencies and different electoral systems will be used on the same day, and he was absolutely right. If the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill goes through the House of Lords unchanged, we will not have parliamentary constituencies here that match the Welsh Assembly constituencies. They already do not match in Scotland, and on top of that there are regional elections to provide the top-up seats in Wales and Scotland. We will end up with a dog's breakfast. It will be difficult for voters to understand precisely whom they are voting for, difficult to conduct the counts for the different elections and difficult for broadcasters to know how to ensure that they give equal balance to the various people standing in elections.
Jo Swinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Does he accept that the situation he describes is not solely a result of this Bill, and that it was bound to happen anyway in 2015, when it is likely the general election would have been? As he says, there are already different boundaries in Scotland. It is right that we find some way of enabling the devolved legislatures to move their elections if they wish, but the situation is not just the result of this Bill.
Chris Bryant: No, no, no, the hon. Lady is wrong. She has a much easier way to solve all this-she can vote with us tonight. She only has to do so twice, first to ensure that the 2015 election is brought forward to 2014 and then to ensure that elections are every four years, not every five. She has to do both, she cannot just do one, because otherwise we would still end up with elections happening at the same time every 20 years.
Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP):
I wonder whether we can get down to the brass tacks of this. In 2007, some 140,000 ballots in Scotland were void, nullified
and not counted. People were disfranchised because there were two elections of different sorts on the same day. This matter is not ethereal, it is about practical politics and the enfranchisement of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When that point was made earlier in the debate some people said it was all about how the ballot papers were presented, and undoubtedly that was part of the problem. However, the point is that in Wales, an Assembly election feels like a general election. It will feel like a general election next May. Elections to the Scottish Parliament feel like a general election in Scotland, and I am sure the situation is somewhat similar in Northern Ireland. If they coincide with the UK elections every 20 years, it will be a bit of a muddle and voters will be confused. This is not about our convenience, it is about the convenience of voters and the clarity of the mandate that is provided. Without a clear mandate, we end up without good politics and with people distrusting the political system.
I say in passing that another element of the Bill is that the Government intend to stick to a short election campaign, both in any early general election that might be held and in the specific 2015 election. That will not be the same campaign as for the local elections or for the Welsh or Scottish elections. That will provide another level of uncertainty, particularly for treasurers of local election campaigns. They may be the treasurer for their local constituency association or their local party, and they are already given a pretty tough job to do with stringent legal provisions. Often they are nervous about what that might mean for them and whether they will end up in prison. We should not make the situation even more complicated by firing the starting gun for expenses for the various elections on different days. In addition to that, by choosing May we will always hit the problem of Easter. In 2015, polling day will be on 7 May and, because it is a relatively early Easter, Dissolution will be on Monday 13 April. In 2020, unless we change the legislation, polling day will be on 7 May, which will mean that Dissolution will be on Maundy Thursday 9 April, as both 10 and 13 April will not be working days.
Maundy Thursday used to be a day on which one did not have elections. It used to be provided as a bank holiday, but legislation in 1995 removed it from the list. None the less, it would be inappropriate to dissolve Parliament on Maundy Thursday in 2020. The bigger point is that we will constantly have the problem with the start date of the electoral campaign because Easter moves.
Ms Bagshawe: Although I respect the hon. Gentleman's ecclesiastical background, I cannot resist asking him why it would be a problem for the Dissolution of Parliament to take place on a Maundy Thursday. It seems quite a bizarre point to make. Will he please elucidate?
Both days provide a specific role for the monarch. The point that I am trying to make is that because Easter moves, the number of working days' measures that is allowed for in the Bill at the moment makes it more difficult to predetermine exactly how many days there will be. For the most part, it is inappropriate
to have a general election across the passage of Easter; it makes it more difficult. I do not want to lay that down in legislation. I merely make the point.
The main point, however, is that it has always been the ambition of freedom that there should be frequent elections. There is a significant difference between having a fixed term and a maximum term for a Parliament. The Meeting of Parliament Act 1694-it used to be known as the Triennial Act 1694-stated:
"Whereas, by the ancient laws and statutes of this kingdom, frequent parliaments ought to be held; and whereas frequent and new parliaments tend very much to the happy union and good agreement of the king and people".
I fear that the argument of the Government-in particular the argument of the Deputy Prime Minister-that plenty of time is needed to do unpopular things is rather closer to the Septennial Act 1715. That said:
"And whereas it has been found by experience that the said clause"--
"hath proved very grievous and burthensome, by occasioning much greater and more continued expences in order to elections of members to serve in Parliament, and more violent and lasting heats and animosities among the subjects of this realm, than were ever known before the said clause was enacted; and the said provision, if it should continue, may probably at this juncture, when a restless and popish faction are designing and endeavouring to renew the rebellion within this kingdom, and an invasion from abroad, be destructive to the peace and security of the government."
In other words, as in 1715, the Government want to be able to remain longer in power because they think that it is better for the country. On the whole, we should presume that shorter Parliaments are better. It is no wonder that the Chartists campaigned for annual elections. The petition that was presented to this House on 2 May 1842 by Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, the MP for Finsbury, argued for it and for the payment of MPs. The Parliament Act 1911, to which several hon. Members referred, came about in response to the battle over the powers of the House of Lords and the people's Budget in 1910. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith then said that the change would probably amount in practice to an actual working term of four years.
"This general election was called only after months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy. No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above country as the Conservatives have done. Although an early election will sometimes be necessary, we will introduce as a general rule a fixed parliamentary term."
In 2002, Tony Wright, the former Member for Cannock Chase-he was previously the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee-brought in a ten-minute rule Bill, calling for fixed-term Parliaments. He pointedly said that the fixed term had to be four years rather than five years.
In 2007, another ten-minute rule Bill was brought forward in the name of David Howarth, a very fine man who was then the Liberal Democrat Member for Cambridge. He argued very forcefully, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, that there should be a fixed-term
Parliament. The Liberal Democrats have long argued for fixed-term Parliaments, but fixed at four years and not five. Their policy paper 83 "For the People By the People"- [ Interruption.] I will not repeat what my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) has just said. The policy paper, which was introduced to the autumn conference in 2007, set out the commitment to a written constitution, which included fixed parliamentary terms of four years. It stated:
"Liberal Democrats have long argued that parliaments should last for a fixed term of four years. In a reformed political system coalition government might be the norm and stability can only be encouraged by a system which does not allow for snap elections when political relationships suffer temporary disruption."
The best advocate of such legislation was the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). Indeed, he brought a Bill before Parliament. I have seen lots of photographs of him advocating a four-year fixed Parliament. As he is an honourable man who believes in consistency, I know that he will support us tonight in favour of a four-year rather than a five-year term.
Welcome to the Chair, Miss Begg. It is a delight to see you for the first time in the Chair in the full Chamber of the House. Let me repeat, there is no mandate for this provision. This provision is not the one that was in the Liberal Democrats' manifesto. It is not the provision that was in the Conservative party's manifesto, because the Conservative party said that it would introduce legislation to provide that if a party in Government changed its leader, and therefore the Prime Minister, there would be a general election within six months. That provision has completely disappeared, so there is no mandate for the precise nature of this Bill.
I am sure that the Deputy Leader of the House and the Minister have persuaded themselves of their argument. They have scrunched up their eyes and desperately persuaded themselves that this Bill does not try to extend the length of Parliaments. They have screwed themselves to the sticking point, and they are determined to get it through. The honest truth, however, is that this is a wrong measure. It is anti-democratic. It will mean that general elections happen less frequently. This House should support the amendments that have been tabled by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr and all the other amendments that call for four-year Parliaments rather than five-year Parliaments and the next general election in May 2014 and not 2015.
In the unavoidable absence of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), I should like to put before the House amendment 32, which has been tabled by members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is chairman. I and other hon. Members here present are also members. Not all members of the Select Committee have put their names to this amendment, and I do not wish to press it to a Division. None the less, I want to put it before the House on behalf of the Select Committee because it was part of our process of pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. In the Select Committee's words, the House should consider whether
"a Parliament following an early general election should last for only as long as the remainder of the term of the previous Parliament, and whether such a provision would make a super-majority for a dissolution unnecessary?"
"ensure a governing majority does not abuse its ability to push through an early election resolution for no good reason other than being a favourable time to itself to go to the polls".
"a strong disincentive to a government inclined to call an early election"
"a disincentive to opposition parties tempted to force a mid term dissolution".
There are at least three further arguments in support of amendment 32. First, it would provide a genuine fixed term, making the cycle of ordinary general elections predictable long into the future, or at least until the law is changed. Secondly, it would be in keeping with the statutory arrangements for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Thirdly, it would prevent the cycle of parliamentary constituency boundary reviews -as proposed by the Government in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-from decoupling from regular general elections. That decoupling would occur under the Government's proposals if an early general election were held. Will the Minister consider that in respect of the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as well as in respect of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill?
Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. It will be difficult for people to know on what basis elections are held if we do not accept amendment 32 or an amendment to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to ensure that boundary commissions report 18 months or so before the date of an election.
Mrs Laing: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman and I disagree profusely on the boundary commission issues that are currently being debated in Parliament, but we agree that it is essential that regular boundary reviews coincide with parliamentary terms. I expect that the Minister will also agree with that.
As I have often said when speaking to amendments that have arisen from the pre-legislative scrutiny undertaken by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, amendment 32 is genuinely meant to be helpful to Ministers, and to forewarn them. If there are early elections, boundary commission reviews will be out of step. Having said that, this is a purely practical matter. I am sure that the Minister, once he has given it about two or three minutes' thought, will have a perfectly good response. It is right that this Committee considers such points, because that is the purpose and meaning of pre-legislative scrutiny.
"a Government could be returned following an early general election with a large majority, in which case it would make little sense to ask the voters to return to the polls in as little as a few months."
"The people expect that when they go to the polls, they are being asked to elect a Government which will last for a full term with a full programme."
As I said, not all members of the Select Committee support amendment 32, and I do not wish to press it to a Division. I am speaking to it on behalf of the Select Committee simply so that this Committee has an opportunity to consider the balance of the arguments. I am sure that the Minister will give very good reasons why he does not wish to accept the amendment, but I hope he will reassure us that the Government have considered the points made-perfectly properly-by the Select Committee.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady referred to the evidence given by Professor Hazell, so I am sure that she would also want to point out that he said that fixed terms should be for four and not five years. Does she remember 16 May 2008? She intervened on David Howarth in the Chamber to attack the idea of a fixed-term Parliament. She said:
"Are the Liberal Democrats in favour of this Bill because for nearly a century they have not had an incumbent Prime Minister, and have no prospect of having one for the next century?"-[ Official Report, 16 May 2008; Vol. 475, c. 1704.]
Mrs Laing: I am glad the hon. Gentleman raises that and grateful to him. I very well remember 16 May 2008 -I have the Hansard here in my hand-and I am delighted that when I spoke from the Dispatch Box from which he just spoke, I did not encourage my party to vote against provisions for a fixed-term Parliament Bill. I doubted the motives of the Liberal Democrats at that point.
Mrs Laing: I am consistent on that point as in all other aspects of my political philosophy. In fact, the debate on 16 May 2008 was a full debate on this issue, and I urge hon. Members to consider it.
I have spoken to amendment 32 on behalf of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Having performed my duty in that respect, I am now free, and I should like to speak to amendment 11 on my own behalf, and not on behalf of that Committee or anyone else. There are two issues to consider when it comes to the length of Parliaments: first, the constitutional principle; and secondly, the prevailing political situation. Let us be honest: that is the crux of the matter.
On the constitutional principle, there is nothing strange, new or innovative about a five-year parliamentary term. The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) asked from where the Government have plucked the idea of five-year terms. The fact is that the law
permits five-year Parliaments, as it has for the past 99 years. The idea has not been plucked from nowhere-it is quite normal.
Jonathan Reynolds: Does the hon. Lady not recognise that the normal practice has been four-year terms? In fact, the average length is slightly less than four years. If we are to extend that period, we should at the very least be given an argument in favour of it, but such an argument has not so far been forthcoming.
Mrs Laing: No. With respect, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The Bill is not about extending Parliament. Four year Parliaments are not normal. Let us be realistic and honest about that, in political terms. We have had four-year Parliaments because they have suited Prime Ministers who believed that they had a better chance of securing a majority in the country after four years than if they went on for another year. The current system gives enormous power to Prime Ministers, and quite rightly so. There must be some power of incumbency, which is what the power to make such decisions is. There is no norm of four-year Parliaments, and averages are irrelevant-they are just arithmetic.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady is talking about what is normal. I venture to say that it has not been normal in the British system, since 1832, to have a five-year Parliament. There have been a few, but there have been very few. It has been more normal to have four-year Parliaments.
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am sure that my hon. Friend is very familiar with these figures, but 10 of the past 17 Parliaments lasted longer than four years, and six of those 10 lasted longer than four and a half years. That probably supports her argument that many Parliaments run for much longer than four years.
Mrs Laing: I thank my hon. Friend very much for those statistics. He is absolutely correct, and talking about averages is neither here nor there. We should be looking at the number of Parliaments that have run for five years, almost five years or very much less. We cannot count the war years, and it is irrelevant to count unusual times. There is no norm of four-year Parliaments. The Bill does not extend anything; it merely enshrines the current situation.
Jonathan Edwards: On UK norms, is it not true that where institutions are fixed, whether in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, or in local authorities and town, community and parish councils, the norm is four years? The norm in the UK is four years, and that is the whole point of the amendment.
Mrs Laing: The norm for district, county and parish councils is four years, but they are not Parliament. We are talking about Parliament, the duties undertaken by which are different and have a different time span from those undertaken by local authorities.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady accept, therefore, that the only other Parliament in the United Kingdom has a four-year term, and that is the Scottish Parliament, for which, I regret, she did not vote in 1997?
Mrs Laing: No I did not, but I would argue with the hon. Gentleman that, if he seeks consistency, which would not be unreasonable, the Scottish Parliament should change to five years. There is no problem with that.
The point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) about comparisons with local authorities is interesting but irrelevant, because we are talking about Parliament, the work of which has a long time lag.
Mrs Laing: The hon. Gentleman can wave it away, but he cannot change the fact that our country's economic situation is dire, and that is because of what his Government did in their last five-year Parliament. I wish it had not lasted five years, but that is another point-[Hon. Members: "Ah!] Yes, but when I say that, I say it purely out of party political prejudice, and other people in the Chamber ought to admit the same when they are looking for a general election to be sooner, rather than later. It is not constitutional principle, but party political prejudice.
Nic Dakin: Is it not important that we focus on the people we serve, rather than on structures, time periods and so on, and is it not important that we renew our mandate regularly? If the norm is for the renewal of a mandate after four years for local elections, parliamentary elections in Scotland and Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland, does it not make sense to recognise that renewal on a four-year basis is reasonable, especially given that neither of the Government parties took this to the British people in the general election? We have to recognise the norm, by which I mean the average.
Mrs Laing: I have answered the point about local authorities. We are not a local authority; we are the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Making that comparison completely negates the hon. Gentleman's argument. However, he said one thing that was correct: yes, we should be mindful of those whom we serve. We serve them better by producing stable Government, and that is what the Bill will help to do. The fact is that no Parliament can bind its successor.
Mrs Laing: I am glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend, because he is absolutely correct. The argument is totally erroneous. If Opposition Members wish to turn this Parliament into the equivalent of a district council, I for one will oppose them all the way. It is an irrelevant argument. The Bill is a statement of intent and of good management by the Prime Minister, who could, as other Members have said, say nothing now, bring forward no legislation, but intend in his own mind to call the next general election in May 2015, and under the current system that would be entirely up to him.
I have dealt now with the constitutional principle. There is no such principle preventing a fixed-term Parliament of five years, and there is no principle that says that a Parliament of the United Kingdom should be anything other than five years-no principle, no precedent. On the second part of my consideration-the reflection of the current political situation-I noticed the other day that I have an old fridge magnet, purchased some time ago in that illustrious place, the House of Commons souvenir shop. It has on it a pithy saying from that brilliant political thinker, Spike Milligan-
Mrs Laing: It does not say that. It says: "One day the Don't knows will get in, and then where will we be?" [Hon. Members: "They did."] Precisely my point! I used to laugh at that fridge magnet and think that Spike Milligan was funny, but now I am sorry to say his prophecy was correct. Where would we be, if the electorate decided, "Don't know"? We would be where we are now. We need a coalition, because that is what the electorate, in Spike Milligan fashion, decided. We have to have a coalition because it is necessary for stability, and that stability is necessary to resolve the economic situation and put this country back on its feet after 13 years of misrule by Labour Governments.
On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), speaking from the Dispatch Box for the Opposition, was not cynical-the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said today that parts of the Bill are cynical-but practical when she said:
"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.'"-[ Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 697.]
Well, she was absolutely right: that is not cynical; it is practical. We need to have stability. We therefore need to have a stable coalition, and if having fixed-term Parliaments is part of that, we need to have fixed-term Parliaments. The Government are right to state that such a Parliament should last for five years, because in order to bring about the stability that this country needs, it needs to have the same Government continuing with the same coherent, stable economic and social principles in the long term, rather than for short-term political expediency. That is why five years is so important.
I think I must have wandered over to the Government Benches and left my notes for my speech there, because the hon. Lady seems to be reading them out. I can see why it might be practical to say that the next general election should be on 7 May 2015.
However, against her argument, I cannot see why it is a good constitutional principle-one that should be set in legislation-that Parliaments should sit for five-year terms.
Mrs Laing: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman cannot see that, but I have said that I can see it. It is a perfectly proper constitutional principle that a Parliament should sit for five years. Now I am putting the practical side of the argument, which is that in the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves-as a result of the mismanagement of our country's economy and social policy for 13 years by a bad, Labour Government, who did the people of the United Kingdom no favours whatever-it will take more than just two or three years to put this country back on its feet. Therefore, we should have a five-year term. It is what the people of our country need; it is what we as parliamentarians have a duty, in the name of stability, to give the people.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) on her dynamic speech. She has always been a participant in constitutional debates. We have often not seen eye to eye, and, frankly, I am not sure that we are going to change that this evening. However, she spoke with her usual vigour, vim and-in her way-logic. For those who do not know, she and I have always had an issue with some Members of this House who could never pronounce her name properly-that is, as we pronounce it in Scotland. I know that I am not allowed to mention names, but I am sure that she knows what I am talking about. [Hon. Members: "Go on!"] In Scotland, we would pronounce the hon. Lady's name "Lang". I will leave hon. Members to work out the difference, because, without usurping the Chair, Miss Begg, we would normally- [ Interruption. ] No, sorry, we would say "Layng", not "Lang". After 13 years down here, I have almost gone native.
I would like first to comment on one or two other previous speeches in this debate. There have been some powerful contributions to this debate. On the principle of the four-year term, although I did not agree with the analysis on three years put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), he and the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) made telling statements about re-energising our democracy at regular intervals. Frankly, it is arrogant of us in this House to assume that we should not go out there and re-energise our democracy at reasonable times. I am not convinced that five years is the right period to re-energise our democracy. Indeed, the dynamic of the British political infrastructure is built around four-year terms. The hon. Member for Epping Forest assumed that somehow Parliament was in a different position from the other elements of our democratic infrastructure, but I do not think that we are, in that they are underpinned by the same principle that if someone is elected by the people, then every so often, after a reasonable interlude, they should have to regain that mandate.
As an aside, the hon. Member for Epping Forest is a fantastic successor to Sir Patrick Cormack-I hope that she will take that as a compliment-in that she says the word "Parliament" with such gusto and conviction.
Her articulation-I think that is the word-of the word "Parliament" brought back fond memories of Sir Patrick.
There is a dynamic in the British parliamentary system. There is also a logic to the four-year term, which has been built up over many years, yet the one thing that has been missing from the Government's case in proposing five years is logic. There is absolutely no logic to their case, although the hon. Lady's honesty perhaps got us closer than anybody else on the Government Benches was prepared to admit. This is not about logic or principle; this is about sheer political expediency. The current Government tell us that their activities in managing the economy will deal with the deficit in four years, so why are they afraid to go back to the electorate in four years? Why do they need to extend this Parliament for an extra year? Some elements of the coalition Government are in a lifeboat, waiting for the general election of 2015-a political equivalent of the Carpathia-to come by and lift them out of the seas in which they find themselves. That is the only reason for proposing a five-year term.
It is preposterous to introduce a five-year element into a well established cycle of elections every four years. It is almost like the Olympics: if we can divide the year by two, then it should be an election year. Every other democracy that we have highlighted today has gone down the road of four years-in the case of the American Senate, the division is by two. We have a well established political infrastructure in this country.
Graham Stringer: My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for shorter periods between general elections, but when it comes to a coalition, is there not an even stronger democratic argument for shorter periods? By necessity, the policies of a coalition will have been opaque to the electorate at the last general election. Therefore, a coalition Government should go back to the people more often.
Mrs McGuire: I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. We now have a different kind of Government. Had the numbers been slightly different, we might have been in a similar position-that is, in a coalition. However, I cannot imagine that one of our first Bills would have been to extend the life of that Parliament and put a statutory limit-not a flexible limit-on the length of our term, although some of my colleagues have asked why we did not think of the idea first, when we had a majority of 164 in 1997. Hindsight is a great thing.
As for the length of Parliaments, I want to offer my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) an apology, because he was right when he said that there were three Parliaments that ran in excess of five years. There were three others-I have just added up the years; I did not have the benefit of the chart-that effectively ran for five years. However, I hope that he will accept that, taken together, it has been unusual to go beyond four years.
There has been a strong element of honesty-certainly from this side of the Committee-about what happens in the fifth year of a Government. We have to be realistic about the dynamism and energy of a Government in their fifth year. I remember coming into the House in
1997 and hearing then Opposition Members-some of whom are now members of the Government-say that the fifth year of any Parliament is often the one in which the Government are tired and running out of steam. You might remember hearing similar comments, Miss Begg. I do not think that creating fixed Parliaments of five years will change that dynamic of politics. Four years is the time it takes a Government to put a programme in place and to deal with the major issues that it came to power to deal with.
Another element, which I find distasteful, is that this Government are seeking to extend their own life. I would have more respect for this legislation if it extended the life of the next Parliament. At no time did either of the political parties that now form the Government say that they would extend the life of this Government by an extra year.
Ms Bagshawe: Opposition Members return again and again to the same inexplicable argument. Will the right hon. Lady explain how the Government are seeking to extend the life of this Parliament when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may call an election on the very last day of the five years should he choose to do so without introducing any legislation whatever?
Mrs McGuire: There is a distinct difference between the flexibility in the constitution now, and a law that says that this Parliament cannot, without jumping over various hurdles and achieving various percentages, call a general election before the end of that statutory period. That is the fundamental divide in the Committee.
I return to the practical point of whether we should have general elections at the same time as other elements of our democratic society have their elections. The integrity of other elements of our democratic infrastructure should be protected. Frankly, the Westminster attitude that everyone else should change is not compelling, and is insulting to the tens of thousands of people who are involved in all sorts of political activity at local government level, and indeed at Assembly and parliamentary level. This Parliament established the Assemblies and devolved Parliament. We should keep faith with them and recognise that they have the right to pursue their own democratic mandate without our overlaying our election by statute and no longer as a matter of flexibility or choice.
Holding those elections on the same day will cause major difficulties, even if that occurs every so many years. We are discussing different systems for not just two of those elements, but for three or four. We could have the alternative vote system if in the referendum, whenever it is held, the people accept it for this Parliament. We have first past the post for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and over and above that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda said, a third and yet another system is the regional list vote. The issue is not that the people of the various countries of the United Kingdom may be unable to discern the different political arguments that might be made; complexity will be added to our democracy when we want to encourage more people to be involved in democracy. We are in danger of putting them off by saying, "This is how you must vote in this election, this is the way on that election, and this is the way on the second vote."
On a practical point, we may pass legislation in the House, but it has to be implemented. Let us imagine the difficulty that returning officers will face in the first and subsequent elections when they conflict with those elements of our electoral system. We are asking returning officers and all the staff who make sure that our democracy works to do almost the impossible. Although there have been debates on why 140,000 ballot papers were spoiled at the last Scottish Parliament elections, it is fair to say that the response from returning officers and their staff was that holding different elections on the same day with complex voting systems did not help matters, albeit that there were issues with the ballot paper.
What worries me particularly about how the legislation has been introduced is that when challenged, the Deputy Prime Minister's answer was that the date of the other elections should be changed. That is arrogant, and underpins the content of the Bill and the speed with which it is being steamrollered through the House and the other place. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills argued powerfully about constitutional change, and he will recognise that if such change has to happen, it should do so with consensus throughout the House. Constitutional change should happen because all political parties recognise the need for it. What we have here is a unilateral decision by a coalition Government who did not highlight five-year terms in their manifestos.
I suggest to the Minister that there is general good will in the House for fixed-term Parliaments, fixed-term elections, or whatever phraseology we want to use to describe what we all know we are talking about. There is consensus on that principle, but the Government must decide whether they will listen to the voice not just of political opponents, but of people who want that constitutional change. It is not a long way to travel to recognise major constitutional and practical problems with the date that they have chosen, and with the five-year term in principle. A coalition is also about listening to people outside the coalition, and I hope that the Government will yet come forward with a change to the Bill so that the House can agree on fixed-term elections in a way that allows us all to move forward without making it an issue of acrimony between parties.
Thomas Docherty: I welcome you to the Chair, Miss Begg. As I sat here this afternoon and this evening, I saw my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and hon. Members on the Government Benches, and I had a feeling of déjà vu. I felt that we had been here quite recently, and it occurred to me that that was so.
We had a debate in Committee just three weeks ago- [ Interruption. ] As the hon. Member for Foyle said, it was to discuss a Bill with a different title, but one
that also sought to change our parliamentary system. There are perhaps only two reasons why the Government did not amalgamate them in a single Bill. First, this is a back-of-a-fag-packet rushed job that they have pulled together, but they could not get their civil servants to work fast enough for the Deputy Prime Minister. I note that he is not here tonight, and I can only assume that after his 70-minute contribution to our eight hours of debate on the other Bill he is exhausted. I am sure that Opposition Members wish him all the best in his recovery from that exhaustion. The second reason could be that the Minister so enjoys spending time on Bills that he has been bouncing around all week in eager anticipation of listening to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda giving him an interesting lecture on constitutional history. Without further ado, I will indulge not that fetish, but that fantasy.
I was lucky enough to go on the visit by the all-party British-American parliamentary group to the United States some two months ago, and spent a lot of time studying the US constitution, and especially its constitutional convention, which is particularly apt given the comments by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) about interesting parallels between our parliamentary system and that of our colonial cousins across the water. I have to confess to being something of an anorak in these matters. In fact, I have been described as the Leonard to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda's Sheldon when it comes to the constitutional process.
I should like to recommend to the Committee an excellent book by Professor Robert Beeman called "Plain, Honest Men: the making of the American constitution", which I would be happy to lend to the Minister and to the Deputy Leader of the House if they would like to study it. They might be interested to know that when the Americans came to draw up their constitution and were considering the lengths of terms of office and the roles of the upper and lower Houses and of the Executive, they held a four-month constitutional convention in 1789. They brought together some of the great minds of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and one James Wilson, who was a native of Fife and educated at St Andrew's university, and who emigrated to the colonies in the 1750s. They spent four months debating those matters, and only at the end of that time, after a proper detailed debate, did they deign to bring forward detailed proposals for their terms of office, fixed terms and so on.
Mr Shepherd: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not forget one of the very important constituent parts of that whole debate-namely, the federalist papers. They laid out the arguments for the wider public, which were fiercely debated with proposition and counter-proposition. That was a formidable ingredient that involved an awful lot of people.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, and I apologise for not having touched on it. He is entirely right to say that the work of the likes of Madison and Hamilton was crucial, but that there was also a great debate. They did not try to rush their proposal through.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab):
We are certainly being educated here tonight. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Philadelphia convention was conducted
on the basis of a tabula rasa, and that those people were starting from a base point? What we see here before us today is a foul, expedient hotch-potch of crisis and chaos spatchcocked together to try to allow the coalition to limp on into the future. To compare it to the great towering genius of Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison is to do them a disservice and to give the present coalition Government rather too much credit.
Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that excellent point. When I look at those on the Government Front Bench, however, I see some nuggets of hope and principle, and I am sure they will listen carefully to the points that we are making.
The Minister might be interested to know that, when the Americans were considering term lengths for their parliamentarians and for the presidency, they originally considered a three-year term for the House of Representatives and a seven-year term for the presidency and the Senate. Before the Minister gets too excited about the idea of a seven-year term, however, I should tell him that they also considered making it for one term only. Indeed, they argued that the Executive branch should not sully itself by seeking re-election. I suspect that he would be less keen on that principle. Slowly, however, over that summer, they moved towards a settled will among the 13 colonies. In fact, I should say 12 colonies because, as hon. Members will know, Rhode Island did not attend any part of the convention. They settled on a system of two-year terms for the House of Representatives, six-year terms for the Senate and four-year terms for the presidency. However, the elections for the United States Senate have always been staggered-a point that I regret the Government have not taken on board-so that each voter in every state has the opportunity to cast their verdict on the Senate no more than four years apart. That point seems to have passed by some of those on the Government Benches.
Of course, there are reasons closer to home why we might wish to move to a fixed term of four years. I shall not repeat the points that were made earlier, but I should like to take the Scottish perspective for a moment. It is interesting that the Gould report-which the Deputy Prime Minister admitted on Third Reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill he had not actually read; he had read a report of the report-made it absolutely clear that having multiple elections on the same day would inevitably lead to confusion. The Electoral Commission has also raised that matter, and the electoral administration officers for Scotland are deeply concerned about their ability to deal not only with the referendum and the Scottish Parliament elections being held on the same day in 2011 but with the general election and the Scottish elections in 2015.
There is also the important issue of the television debates. I should explain to those colleagues who have not had the pleasure of representing a constituency in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland that there is a real challenge involved. The main debates for the Westminster election in 2015 will be among the three party leaders, assuming that the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have not merged into a single party for electoral purposes.
However, in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections in that year, there will have to be TV debates within the nations and regions covering the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Democratic Unionist party and so on in Northern Ireland, the Scottish National party, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberals in Scotland, and similar arrangements in Wales. That will become incredibly complicated and could be open to serious legal challenge if we hold the two elections on the same day. The SNP or Plaid could argue that, if the leader of the Labour party gets double the exposure, Labour's vote could go up. I suspect, however, that such exposure for the Deputy Prime Minister would only drive down even further the Liberal Democrat share of the vote in Scotland and, probably, in Wales.
There are also some serious logistical problems that need to be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) stole my line about having different polling stations for the Scottish parliamentary election and the Westminster election. I am sure that that such a situation could also be true for Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is actually a Member at the heart of the Government who does not agree with holding elections on the same day. I accept that his Bill on the decoupling of the local government and Scottish Parliament elections was introduced when he was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, but it might be helpful if I quote the junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. I understand that he has attended the debate today. He was referring to the local government and Scottish Parliament elections, but the principles apply across the board. He said:
"I have always held the view that separate elections for local government and the Scottish Parliament would allow for real local accountability by increasing the focus on the real issues of local government which are currently overshadowed by the policies of the Scottish Parliament."
"Supporters of combined elections argue that by keeping local government together with higher profile elections a higher turnout can be maintained. This is, however, only hiding the problem of a disengaged local electorate, not solving it. The real solution lies in local politicians that respond to local issues, delivering specific solutions to the specific problems in their community."
I am conscious of the time, and of the fact that other Members wish to speak. I look forward to the Minister reflecting on the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and on the wisdom of our colonial cousins. I also look forward to him supporting our amendments.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Miss Begg. I want to focus on the practical issues, as we have heard quite a lot of constitutional theorising, and, indeed, a great deal of fascinating history. When I first saw these proposals, I assumed, perhaps rather naively, that the Government had simply made a big mistake, and that they had not realised that, as a result of going for five-year fixed-term Parliaments with immediate effect-that is, in relation to the length of this Parliament-the date of the general
election would coincide with the Scottish parliamentary elections, the Welsh Assembly elections and the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. I thought that once they realised that that was a problem, they would rethink their proposition, if only in purely practical terms and even if there were a theoretical argument for five years being better than four-and I have certainly not heard one today-but they did not do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) said that he hoped that when the Minister summed up the debate-on Third Reading, of course, the debate may be summed up by the Deputy Prime Minister himself-he would take some of those issues on board, but I fear that, if the previous constitutional Bill is anything to go by, that will not happen. The Deputy Prime Minister could have written his summing-up speech for the Third Reading of that Bill before the debate had even started. Indeed, I believe that he had, given that so little reference was made to the hours spent in Committee and the different arguments that had been put at that stage. It seemed that none of those arguments had been listened to.
I appreciate that many Government Members have no experience of the practical issues that we have raised. There is, after all, only one Conservative Member of Parliament who represents a Scottish seat. There are Scots who represent other seats, but there is only one Conservative MP who does so, and as far as I am aware he has not been present much during our debates or contributed much to them. Some junior members of the coalition-the junior partners-represent Scottish seats, but they too have been fairly conspicuous by their absence for much of the debate. However, the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) has now arrived, and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) was briefly present earlier.
Mrs Laing: I simply must intervene to defend the honour of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who is indeed the only Conservative Member of Parliament in Scotland. He cannot take part in these debates because he is a Minister in a different Department, although he was here earlier, when the Committee was dealing with the important parts of the Bill that relate to Scotland. I cannot allow it to be on the record that he has not paid attention or that he has not taken part in these debates, given that he is not allowed to do so.
Sheila Gilmore: I accept the hon. Lady's point that the Minister cannot take part in the debate, but I have not observed a great deal of discussion in the wider press, here or in Scotland, to which he has contributed.
The point that I was making, however, is that many Government Members have no practical experience of the position that obtained in 2007. I think that Government Members are inclined to make light of it and to imagine that we are stirring up a storm in a teacup over something that did not really matter, but it was important. It was a bad day for democracy when so many things went wrong with that combined election. Yes, it did have something to do with the design of the forms; I am not going to say that it did not, for the design did not help. However, the real issue in that context, which was addressed after 2007, was the decoupling of the local government and Scottish Government elections, with
an arrangement to ensure that that would not happen again. It seems odd to voters in Scotland, and certainly to political activists there, that we are not just returning to the position in which we found ourselves in 2007, but, I would argue, putting ourselves in a considerably worse position.
Although this will not simply be a matter of practicalities, I should like to draw attention to some of the practicalities of which Government Members may not be aware. The boundaries relating to the Scottish Parliament and the Westminster constituencies are now very different. They have moved apart because the number of Scottish constituencies represented here was reduced in 2005. The Scottish Parliament boundaries have been changed very recently. Their size has not been reduced and the numbers have not changed, but there has been a substantial redrawing which, in most cases, has moved them even further from the Westminster boundaries. There are some very strange boundaries, making it difficult for people to understand who represents them and what constituency they are in.
People who live in the southernmost part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) for Westminster purposes will be in Edinburgh Eastern for the purposes of the Scottish parliamentary elections next year. Given that they live in the far south of Edinburgh, they find it quite difficult to fathom why they have effectively been transported to a different part of the city. That will cause not just a potential for electoral confusion, but serious practical problems relating to the organisation of the elections.
Even more important is the blurring and confusing of the real political differences that have emerged since devolution. I am sure that the same applies to Wales, although I probably do not know enough about its politics or history. No doubt my colleagues will rush to enlighten me. Our politics in Scotland, however, have developed very differently. Not many of the political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament take the lines adopted by the coalition Government here.
For instance, the coalition Government have decided that they want to stop funding the building of affordable housing through grants-I assure you that this point is relevant to the debate, Miss Begg-and instead to fund it by raising rents, which means that tenants will pay for the building of their new homes. I am absolutely positive that no party represented in the Scottish Parliament, even the Conservative party, will espouse such a position in Scotland through the Parliament. In the past-although the situation may change-all the parties in the Scottish Parliament have signed up to free personal care for the elderly. At that time a different view was taken at Westminster, and a different view was taken by my party and by others. However, although some might find it surprising, the Conservatives in Scotland have signed up to that policy in the past.
Mrs McGuire: In a radio programme that I heard on Friday, a leading member of the Liberal Democrat party in the Scottish Parliament said that in no circumstances would the Liberal Democrats introduce tuition fees. Has my hon. Friend any idea how we could conduct a debate about tuition fees-given the position of one of the partners in the coalition Government, the Liberal Democrat party-while also trying to conduct a debate about funds for students in Scotland, with all that happening at the same time as the two elections?
Sheila Gilmore: I entirely agree. That is another illustration of where the difficulty lies. It is not that people are stupid. It is not that the voters cannot understand that there are two elections ongoing. It is that the issues will not be properly debated, and there will be confusion about what the various parties stand for. For example, Scottish Liberal Democrats may, as has been suggested, wish to campaign strongly about the way they think universities should be funded. As that is clearly different from the position taken by their leadership here at Westminster, they are going to find it much harder to get their point of view across.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I am surprised that the hon. Lady thinks this will cause confusion since Labour seemed to manage such a situation: they supported the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland as part of the coalition there while simultaneously opposing that for the rest of the United Kingdom from the Government Front Bench here in the last Parliament.
Sheila Gilmore: I was not suggesting that it is either confusing in general terms or wrong that parties in different parts of the United Kingdom should take different views. That has also happened in Wales, and it has happened on health issues and education issues. It is right that we should develop in that way; I think it is extremely healthy. It is a sign of the strength and success of devolution since 1999 that there can be such differences of opinion even within political parties that are very close and see themselves as part of the same party.
Thomas Docherty: For the benefit of those Lib Dems who are only arriving now, so very late to the debate, may I ask my hon. Friend whether she agrees with the following point made tonight by the leader of Plaid Cymru and others-that confusion will be caused by having two elections on the same day, especially as they will be preceded by TV debates with on one night the party leader for the UK saying that his party will pursue one policy and the following night the party leader in Wales or Scotland saying something else?
Sheila Gilmore: I absolutely agree. The problem is not to do with people taking different positions; it is to do with what will happen in the month or few weeks before an election when the issues are being debated on the hustings and being reported in the newspapers. I have an awful vision of us running two sets of hustings and trying to get people to come out to slightly chilly church halls to listen to completely different debates on different nights-although it is perfectly possible to get people to come out to such events when elections take place at different times. Why make this happen when we do not have to?
Chris Bryant: Is the point not that elections to the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland and to the Parliament in Scotland feel like general elections? Indeed, effectively the law treats them like general elections in that a free post is allowed through the Royal Mail and the broadcasters have to report events in certain ways. A conflict will arise if every 20 years we hold these elections on the same day.
Sheila Gilmore: I thank my hon. Friend for that information, and I do not think that Government Members appreciate that aspect. What we are talking about is not a local government election that we might be facing next year or in 2015. The elections we are talking about are not less important than general elections for people in Scotland, because people in Scotland consider the Scottish Government to be the Government of the country for the purposes for which they have powers. They are a Government: they have a First Minister, a Cabinet and a national aspect in the sense that they are the Government in a Parliament that covers the part of the UK that is Scotland. I am not trying to ignore Wales or Northern Ireland at all in this, and the same principles apply to them.
If we respect what we have achieved through devolution, it is important that we do not allow that to be swamped. We have those different debates and policies, and people have their chance to vote differently, which they do-I am not for a minute going to suggest that people will not vote differently on the same day, because I know that that can happen. The genuine ability to separate out these areas of politics and to allow each legislature its real place and presence within our constitution is simply being ignored by these measures. As I have said, it seems to me that there is no reason for that.
Mrs McGuire: My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument on the practical issues. Has she also had time to consider how the broadcasting authorities will maintain some element of balance, as they will have to schedule programmes for two different elections with two different political dynamics-with different parties being in different positions in different parts of the country? Are we not placing an impossible burden on those whom we are asking to implement the legislation currently going through the House?
Sheila Gilmore: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Yet again, that is another aspect of a situation that we are creating. Apparently-the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) let the cat out of the bag-this is being done not for any good and strong constitutional reason or because we can argue about the history of the past 200 years, but because it suits this coalition Government to have this Parliament last for five years. It suits them to have this provision wrapped up with the other parts of the Bill, which will be debated later, to try to ensure that the coalition holds together. This is being wrapped up as a constitutional Bill and it is being presented as something that will last into the future but, given our constitution, it is possible for a future Parliament to change that, so we are not entrenching things.
Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend mentions the future. Has she, like me, worked out that if we have a second five-year term, we will run slap bang into the local government elections in Scotland, which we have put back by a year? We would then have an even worse situation than the one in 2007, with a general election and the local government elections leading to hundreds of thousands of spoiled ballot papers.
I thank my hon. Friend for that information, because it adds to the important case that we are presenting. The people who find this highly
amusing clearly have not had the experience that we had. It is incumbent on a Government who said that they would want to look at the evidence and make decisions on the basis of hard facts to listen to the evidence being given by people who have been through this process and who understand the complexities of devolution in a situation where we still have a UK Government. We have had experience of this, as have the elected bodies, which have given their view very clearly to the UK Government but have been ignored. They were not consulted before this, but they gave their view and told of their experience, so it is not asking too much of any Government to say, "Perhaps we have not got this right."
Perhaps the simplest thing for the Government to do is not to try to see whether they could slip the election by a month, as has been suggested by some people. That would represent the worst of all possible worlds for the voters, let alone for the political parties. The simplest thing would be to say, "We have got this wrong, but we believe in fixed-term Parliaments." The Labour party proposed fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto and the Liberals believe in them too. I am not sure whether the Conservatives believe in them, but they introduced this legislation so presumably they now do. We all seem to agree that there should be fixed-term Parliaments. On that basis, why are we having this debate? Because the coalition Government are so determined to stick to their first thought, which was to have five years.
The Government may be doing that only for advantage and to feel that they have the longest possible time in which to be the Government. I have to say to the hon. Member for Epping Forest that she and others on the Government Benches may feel that they have an entitlement to sit for five years, having been elected, but a lot of people in the country have a very different view. The majority party in the coalition did not get a majority for its policies. The junior partner in the coalition went to the people on a different set of policies, so the people who voted for the Liberals did not vote for the programme of this coalition Government. The Government's approach seems particularly unfortunate for democracy in this country, given that the Government do not have a mandate to rule in the majoritarian fashion that they are doing.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Is the hon. Lady therefore saying that her party does not accept that a coalition of two parties is sufficient to run the country? Does she believe only in first-past-the-post majority rule, and must we keep having elections until we get some sort of majority Government by default?
Sheila Gilmore: Coming from Scotland and having seen both coalitions and minority Governments in operation, I am very open to various ways of running a Government. I would not for a minute want to suggest that it always has to be an absolute majority, that first past the post is what we need or that we need majorities.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent and forceful argument, drawing on the arguments that we have heard before. She is saying very well that there is consensus in this House about fixed-term Parliaments, but that constitutional change should be undertaken very carefully to ensure that it creates a settlement that
is sustainable and stable. Separating national elections from UK elections is an important part of that, because it makes for a crisper, more certain mandate from the people whom we have a duty to serve. When the people are going to the polls for the Assembly or the parliamentary elections, they should be clear that those are the prime elections to focus on. When there is a UK election, they can focus on that. For that reason, four-yearly terms would be much better at this time.
Ordinary electors thought that a hung Parliament would be a good idea, because they genuinely believed that there would be openness and that people would listen to different points of view. That has not happened. The strong views of the elected Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been listened to. The bulk of the evidence given to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, of which I am a member, was clearly in favour of four-year fixed-term Parliaments. Why should that weight of evidence be ignored? Was that what people expected from a more consensual and open approach? I think that a lot of people thought that coalition meant that we would get the best bits from everyone and that everyone would sit around and have discussions-
Sheila Gilmore: The hon. Lady seems to think that they did get the best bits from everyone, but that makes it clear to me that she did not believe in the manifesto on which she stood because so many parts of it seem to have been ditched in favour of the policies of the other party.
A small and simple change-a very small concession-that would not in any way interfere with the principle of fixed-term Parliaments would make it far easier for the Bill to be passed relatively quickly. It would allow national elections in all parts of the United Kingdom to go forward in the best possible way and our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies to present their policies to the electorate in the way they want to.
Our media are very England-centric-and, indeed, London-centric-although Government Members might not be so acutely aware of that as Opposition Members are, and I fear that the domination of the UK-wide poll and the important issues it involves, which must be dealt with, will be such that the important elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly will, sadly, be overwhelmed. I fear that the issues, ideas and important policies that concern those elections will not be fully debated before the population, that the arguments will not be properly heard and that people will not get the chance to have their say about how those legislatures have functioned in the preceding years, but it is important that they should get that say.
The bulk of the evidence that the Select Committee heard was that what is being asked is not a lot. It seems to be simply stubbornness-perhaps it is about political advantage above all else-to stick to the same position in the face of all the arguments that we have heard. I
hope that it is not too late, even now, for the Government to rethink their position and to allow the Bill to pass through the House with the agreement of all parties because we have reached genuine consensus.
Stephen Pound: It is a delight and pleasure to serve under you, Miss Begg. This evening has been an extraordinarily educative process. We have looked very far back into the past and I should like to imagine some time in the future. I imagine a group of fresh-faced young students in some constitutional history class at some as-yet-unbuilt school-perhaps the Tony Blair faith academy, the Ann Widdecombe college of dance and drama or, hopefully, the Eleanor of Epping college of education for the daughters of gentlefolk. In one of those as-yet-unbuilt but glorious buildings, some pernickety pedagogue will turn to the class and say, "Let us go back to November 2010 and see what the House of Commons was debating." The pedagogue will say, "They were discussing the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill," and someone will ask, "What was the context?" The Government amendments before us refer specifically to compromise, but the key point is the context in which the Government are bringing the Bill before the House tonight. It is based on expediency, not ethics. Just as no good fruit can grow from a diseased tree, the coalition is like the upas tree, poisoning the soil all around it. They are trying to poison our very constitution with this appalling Bill.
The Temporary Chair (Miss Anne Begg): Much as I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman's flow, I remind him that we are in Committee and that he must address his comments to the amendments before us, rather than the Bill in general.
Stephen Pound: I stand abashed, ashamed and corrected, but, as ever, eager to serve, Miss Begg. I was about to turn specifically to the amendment of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who speaks for Plaid Cymru. The amendment is supported by a broad coalition of the better brains in the House, including the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), whose constituency is possibly the most unpronounceable in Scotland. The amendment offers an alternative to the centralist, Stalinist, steel-like structure of a five-year Parliament. It offers something that we are prepared to support for the good of the nation although not all of us believe in it entirely in our hearts-a four-year fixed-term Parliament.
To see the amendments in the specific context, we have to think of what happened in May this year, when two groups of people were trying to buy a house. They were trying to bid for that great mansion of state that is this United Kingdom, and they found that even as the previous occupants were leaving with dignity from the front door, neither of them had enough money to buy the house, so they both moved in at the same time. Maybe they daubed the soffit with a bit of yellow and put a touch of blue on the eaves, but they had no choice.
You will no doubt be asking yourself, Miss Begg, how this relates to the amendments before us. That is precisely what I was coming to. I do not wish to comment on the sleeping habits of Liberal Democrats. That is far too exotic an area for me, but the camp bed in the living room and, in the master bedroom, surrounded by damask
silken curtains, the great four-poster bed that the Conservatives occupy represent a compromise, which is the basis of the coalition.
The Bill on the Floor of the House today at the Committee stage refers to the creation of a structure that will bind together two disparate groups of people-the people who virtually bought the house and the lodgers on the camp bed in the front room. You may think that that is not relevant, and I would have to say, Miss Begg, that I agree with you, but the point that I am trying to make is that the Bill must be seen in the context from which it comes.
Chris Bryant: Is not the point, in relation to five-year or four-year fixed-term Parliaments, the one that was made by the professor of constitutional law at King's college London, Robert Blackburn who, in his evidence to the Select Committee, said of the genesis of the Bill that
"it is, I think, fairly clear that it is driven by the political self-interest of the coalition Government. They want to fix the lifetime of this Government-not the Parliament, but the Government"?
The Temporary Chair: Order. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) will have seen from my body language that he is not pleasing me. He is continuing with a Second Reading speech. He must address the amendments-not just mention them, but address the content of the amendments.
The Septennial Act 1715, as amended by the Parliament Act 1911, is the Act that we will lose, should the Bill reach the statute book. The key point is that if, in the interest of expediency and of pleasing the coalition, we bring in a five-year fixed-term Parliament in contra-indication and contrast to the existing legislation, we place this country in peril indeed. The Bill at present on the Floor of the House at Committee stage, which I read with great care a few moments ago, is hedged around with all sorts of caveats so that an election may not be held on a day of national mourning or thanksgiving or on Christmas day. The Bill is limiting.
I support the amendment because that limitation restricts the right and privilege of the House to decide, under certain circumstances. There are emergencies or there may be some dramatic situation where an election has to take place. The removal of the royal prerogative, on this day of all days, is not something that I wish to comment on.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman mentions days when the election can take place. Does he agree that the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies of the United Kingdom should be given proper respect, and therefore that new clause 4 should be supported? That would allow them to see whether particular days did not suit them. Whether it be Christmas, Burns night, Hallowe'en or whatever, they should be given the choice if there were a clash between the elections to this place and to the great Parliament of Scotland, and the attendant media were unable to cope.
Stephen Pound: Today is Eid al-Adha, and that is an important factor that should be taken into consideration. At the risk of offending my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and being too London-centric, there are different times in different parts of this United Kingdom when an election may not be appropriate. Judging by the results, it seems we may have had an election on Hallowe'en on a few occasions, but there are certain days on which demonstrably we should not be doing so. However, by limiting ourselves in this way, by applying this template of centralism to the whole structure, we put ourselves in danger, which is why new clause 4, an elegantly crafted piece of work, which stands by itself in all its wonder and majesty, is something that we should happily support.
"Before issuing a certificate, the Speaker of the House of Commons must consult the Deputy Speakers (so far as practicable).
Nic Dakin: I am following my hon. Friend's argument very carefully, as all hon. Members will be. Is it not true that all the evidence is that in their fifth year Parliaments run out of steam and get tired, and the country is impatient for democratic renewal, and is not that why we should have four-year Parliaments or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) argued, three-year Parliaments?
Stephen Pound: One reason why I support clause 1, page 1, line 13, is not because I am massively enamoured of the joys of four-year Parliaments as opposed to five-year Parliaments, nor because I think that there is a natural rhythm in the political cycle that means that every few years we get exhausted and have to have an election, but because it is the least-worst option. It is unfortunately a fact that sometimes we have to present that option. I happily present the hon. Gentleman from the constituency that one day I will be able to pronounce.
Mr MacNeil: There has been confusion in the House that somehow five years is bad and four years is good. It is almost Orwellian. The fact that five years in the UK has turned out to be bad is because people tend to leave it to five years. The reason I support four years is not because I think five years is particularly bad, but four years is long enough to spend without going back to the people to ask for another mandate. It is a democracy, after all, and ultimately the people, through the ballot box, rule. Politicians and elected people are stretching the credulity of the electorate to go beyond four years. The example of Scotland again is tremendous for Westminster.
Amendment 11 addresses these points. The reality is that if we had a fixed-term Parliament-I appreciate I am arguing for a fourth year rather than a
fifth year-what dreadful temptations would come the way of susceptible politicians? Legislation would be front-loaded, knowing that there was never the possibility of an early election by which they might be made accountable to the people. I appreciate that clause 1 may be influenced by future legislation on recalls. We could find ourselves with so many recall petitions that we in fact have a new Parliament in the middle. There are certain aspects in the Bill later-not specifically relevant to clause 1, before you mention it, Miss Begg-which refer to the power to dissolve. But the most important, most salient point here is that if we locked the system into a four-year or five-year cycle, we would lose that glorious uncertainty of the democratic oversight. We would lose that concern, may I say, even, on occasion, that fear of the electorate, which is the honest emotion that parliamentarians should always feel.
Mr MacNeil: The reason we want a fixed-term Parliament, particularly those in minority parties, who are never in the party of government in this situation-in Scotland we made sure that it is far more democratic-is not the fear of the electorate, it is the fear of the Government, using the particular wins that they have created for their own advantage in a narrow period of time. There is an advantage in a fixed-term Parliament. Some people prefer five, some people prefer four. I am in the four camp-
Stephen Pound: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because mention was made earlier-perhaps too much mention for many of us-of the American political system, where, by having fixed terms, there is permanent campaigning and fundraising, a permanence that takes away what I referred to as the glorious uncertainty borne of the possibility and potential of hearing the people's voice. The voices of the funding committees and various other supportive bodies are heard, but that sword of Damocles, which should be hanging over the head of every politician in a modern democracy, is somehow removed, because it is winched slowly down by clockwork, instead of dangling from a piece of monofilament.
I hope that I have expressed tonight a sincere and heartfelt view that, just as everything must be seen whence it sprang, this Bill, which we are considering in Committee, has sprung from a coalition that is fundamentally unsound and based not on political realities but expediency. The group of proposed changes before us, which would set the date, elections and length of a Parliament, would go some way towards mitigating this-I dare not say "evil", because that would be too strong a word-sordid, mean, pettifogging, limp, expediency of a Bill.
My hon. Friend makes the point about the number of amendments in this group, and they aim to ensure not just that the term is fixed at four years, but that the cycle of fixed terms does not clash with the cycle of fixed terms for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland elections. This Chamber has already imposed a UK referendum on those elections next year, and now, under this Bill, the Government want to impose a UK general election on the devolved elections in 2015 as well.
Stephen Pound: My hon. Friend, not for the first time and almost certainly not for the last, makes a very powerful and pertinent point. If the Bill proceeds tonight without the benefit of the amendments that we are discussing, it will be not just the political cycle that is locked into a four or five-year time frame, but the economic cycle and so many other aspects of life. They will then be locked into a fixed term. That fixed term will apply not just to Parliament, but to the country, and that is dangerous. It is dangerous if we always assume that, no matter what a Government do, they can get away with it, because there will be no election for three, four or, heaven forbid, five years.
That is the danger, and that is when the markets start to build in an assumption of front-loading and when other countries assume that, although there may or may not be a change of Government in the future, there will not be one at that moment in time. That is when offence is given to all parts of this nation with different traditions, different histories and different days of great and signal importance. There are so many fears, so many concerns, so many worries, and the case made for the group of amendments is so powerful and so much a matter of righteousness that it would be otiose of me to continue to press it any longer.
I sit down, Miss Begg, with apologies if I may on occasion have strayed slightly from the purity of the amendments before us, but I hope profoundly that this House will tonight agree that the people matter more than political fixes, and that somehow this is about the constitution, not about the coalition.
A number of Members said that they thought that the Government would be running out of steam, but it is a very clear sign that the Opposition are running out of steam when they have to wheel members of the Whips Office in to argue a case-a case, actually, against their own Front Benchers. Their Front Benchers are in favour of four-year terms, so the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) would have done a better job if he had troubled to read the Bill, the amendments and clause 1.
In addressing the amendments that deal with clause 1 on the proposed length of the fixed term and the date of the next election, it might be helpful to explain at the outset why the Government have taken the approach that we have set out in the Bill. The Government
announced in the coalition agreement our intention to introduce a Bill for fixed-term Parliaments, and I have listened to a good number of arguments for and against the proposed five-year term, not least today. The Government strongly believe that a five-year fixed term is right, not only for this Parliament but for subsequent Parliaments, as it will provide the country with the strong and stable Government that it needs.
We have heard arguments in favour of a four-year or three-year fixed term. However, the statistical evidence shows that if we exclude the three very short Parliaments since the war, the average length of Parliaments has approached four and a half years. The first point that I would make in respect of the arguments for four-year or three-year Parliaments is that those advocating them gave insufficient regard to the current arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) outlined in observing that this Parliament is able to sit for five years. Indeed, if the Prime Minister wanted to achieve the aim of this Parliament sitting for five years, he would merely not ask the Queen to dissolve it for five years. The Bill has nothing to do with extending the term of this Parliament.
Mr MacNeil: If the hon. Gentleman is such a strong advocate of five years for a Parliament, would he extend that strength of feeling to the devolved legislatures to enable them to have five-year terms as well? If we do the multiplication-five times four equals 20-it is clear that we will have the problem of the two dates clashing every 20 years. Would he be happy for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to move to five-year terms as opposed to four?
Mr Harper: The problem to which the hon. Gentleman is alluding is the once-in-every-20-years coincidence of dates. If he will allow me to make some progress, I will address those issues later in my remarks.
Chris Bryant: The Minister is being extremely disingenuous. He said that the Prime Minister can keep going until 2015 if he wants to, but that is not the case-he does not have a majority. In fact, the words of Robert Blackburn to the Select Committee are right:
"The Liberal Democrats want to be sure that the Conservative leadership would not cut and run in the same way that a minority Administration with an informal pact with the Liberal Democrats in Parliament might-as in 1974".
The other side of the coin is that the Conservatives want some guarantee that the Liberal Democrats will not change their minds. The Prime Minister needs this Bill to keep the coalition in power until 2015.
Chris Bryant: I am sorry, Miss Begg-I did not mean to suggest that the Minister was misleading the House. I think that his argument is misleading, but I am sure that he is not trying to mislead the House.
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. He says that the Government can continue in office only if they retain the confidence of the House. I will not dwell on this at length, Miss Begg, because that would be to move on to arguments that we will make when we come to clause 2. The Bill contains provisions whereby we will have a fixed-term Parliament, but subject to two conditions: first, this House will, for the first time, have the power to cause an early general election; and secondly, we are keeping the provision that a Government have to retain the confidence of the House. The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong.
Some Members, in trying to argue that four years is the norm and five years is only for Governments who are clinging on to power, have pointed to examples of Parliaments that have lasted closer to four years than five. That completely overlooks the fact that elections that are called early, before the five-year term is up, are often those where the Prime Minister of the day thought that doing so might give their party a political advantage. It was not that they somehow thought that four years was the more constitutionally appropriate length of time for them to hold office.
Advocates of three or four-year terms are using as their strongest argument the very enemy that the Bill is designed to combat, which is political expediency at the expense of national interest. The right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), who is no longer in her place, asked why Labour did not think of the idea in 1997. I can tell her that it was because the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, wanted to preserve his ability to cut and run and seek an election at whatever opportunity he thought best.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) effectively makes the case for Prime Ministers being able to cut and run. The current Prime Minister is the first one who has put aside that ability in the move to a fixed-term Parliament.
Mr Shepherd: My hon. Friend sets aside the words of Asquith, who predates any shenanigans on the matter, but will he consider the fact that the longest-serving Prime Minister of the last century was Lady Thatcher? She had four-yearly elections like a metronome, so there is experience of the concept of Prime Ministers believing that four years is an appropriate time.
Mr Harper: I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions Baroness Thatcher, who of course was a great Prime Minister and served this country well. I remember the elections that she called in 1983 and 1987, which she won with resounding majorities and continued to serve the country. I am sure that if she were here, she would agree that when she asked Her Majesty the Queen to dissolve Parliament, she thought about the likely consequences of those elections and the likelihood that the Conservative party would be returned to office. She was a politician-a very successful one-and I do not think I do her a disservice if I point that out.
My hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) drew attention to one of our arguments about the need for long-term thinking. Many commentators, politicians and members of the public would argue that Governments can be too short-term in their planning and decision making. We want to encourage future Parliaments and Governments to take a long-term view rather than look for short-term advantages. As a number of my hon. Friends have argued, a five-year fixed term would provide the country with a strong and stable Government.
I turn to the amendments in this group. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who is not in his place, seeks to set the length of Parliaments at three rather than five years. I think perhaps he did himself a disservice when he quoted remarks of his own constituents suggesting that a three-year term was needed so that he might last it, because of his age. I am only repeating what he said; I do not agree with it myself. However, I simply do not agree with his argument. The flaw in it came when he said that the Government parties wanted not a fixed term but a five-year term. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is perfectly capable, while the Government retain the confidence of the House, of having a five-year term of office. That has always been the constitutional position, and the Bill is not necessary to ensure it.
Tristram Hunt: In some of the speeches that we have heard from the Deputy Prime Minister-I understand that he is giving one to the Hansard Society tonight rather than being in the Chamber to discuss the Bill, which is rather scandalous-there has been much talk about the Chartists and how this great reform is an echo of the 1840s. The Chartists were in favour of yearly elections, so why does the Deputy Prime Minister deny the will of the people by keeping Parliaments at five years?
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the point that the Chartists made, but I do not happen to think that annual elections would be a good idea, and from my experience I am not sure that the people of this country would be over-enamoured of us if we said that we would trouble them with a general election every year. I believe that they will be content with our proposal. We do not want to end up with a situation in which the people of the United Kingdom are subject to a permanent election campaign. That is the evidence that the Constitution Committee in the other place has received. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) drew attention to the matter when he looked at the US congressional experience in the lower House where, effectively, as soon as Congressmen get elected, they instantly turn their thoughts to their re-election and spend most of their period of office having to raise money for expensive election campaigns.
Mr MacNeil: Let me pick up on that point about the American Congress and the House of Representatives. There are a number of American politicians-those in safe seats and those who are unopposed-who are not on a constant campaign. The Minister made a fair point about Lady Thatcher, especially given the partisan point that he could have made. She looked at the party advantage of her electoral cycle and that is why she probably went for four years. If the Minister does not support the five-year terms for the devolved legislatures, will he support new clause 4 that would allow the devolved legislatures to avoid the clash with the Westminster Parliament?
My final point for the hon. Member for Great Grimsby-he did not address this in his remarks, so I can only assume that it is an oversight-is that his amendment would mean that the next election would take place on a Tuesday. He gave us no indication of why he would want to do that, so I assume that his amendment is technically as well as logically flawed.
Let me turn now to amendments 11, 12 and 13, the first of which was ably moved by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), and supported by those on the Opposition Front Bench. The amendments primarily make the argument for four-year terms, which is probably a good moment to pick up on the point about the coincidence with the devolved elections. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) was a little too soon in her criticisms of what Ministers will do, because she had not actually heard what I was going to say. She did exactly the same when we debated the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and she was not correct in what she said. The Committee, of which she is a member, was behind an amendment that was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest. Although we did not accept the amendment, we took it away and brought back a Government amendment to do exactly what the hon. Lady wanted, which was to reduce the ability of Ministers to interfere with a boundary commission report. It was not true to say that we did not listen to the House; we tabled an amendment that was inspired by the Committee of which she is a member. The Government do listen.
When the Deputy Prime Minister made the statement on 5 July, he recognised that the coincidence of the devolved elections in 2015 with the UK general election was qualitatively different from the coincidence of the referendum and the elections next year. He has discussed the matter with the devolved Administrations and the Presiding Officers. He said that he would look at the matter, and he has kept that promise. I can tell the House that we will consult the parties in the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to give them the power to defer the date of their elections by up to six months-in other words, to move the election into the future to avoid coinciding with elections to this House.
I shall write to the First Ministers, the Presiding Officers and all the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly tomorrow to set out that plan. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of
State for Scotland and Wales will be available to discuss those matters with parties represented in the Parliament and the Assembly.
Mr Harper: That is something that we will be able to discuss when we consult Members in the other places. This power will only be exercisable in the years in which elections coincide, because it is to deal with that specific issue; it is not a general power. As for the ability of the Parliament and the Assembly to bring their elections forward, we feel that two-thirds of MSPs or AMs would be needed to support such a move. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is not a power that should not be given to the Administrations; this is a power that should be given to the Parliament and the Assembly.
Mr Harper: I will give way to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) again, and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Rhondda. If the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) will give me a moment, I will get to Northern Ireland and then I will take his intervention if he still wishes to make one.
Mr MacNeil: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way once more. I do not want to seem pedantic, but for the sake of clarity, does he mean that two thirds of the relevant devolved legislatures can move elections both back and forward, or only back?
Mr Harper: The position at the moment is that two thirds can bring about an early election, and there is no power to extend the term, so to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, that means two thirds for both.
Chris Bryant: I apologise if this is a similar point to the one made by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). The legislatures already have the power to bring forward elections, but there is to be a power to extend. In effect, therefore, the Government are extending this Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly for the convenience of the coalition. In essence, the Minister is saying that the motto of the Government is "Fewer Elections".
Mr Harper: No. The hon. Gentleman must not keep giving the Committee misleading arguments. The Bill does not extend the term of this Parliament-this Parliament can run for five years. Members of the devolved Parliament and Assemblies have asked the Government to think about how they can make a decision on whether to move the date-a sensible provision-of elections.
The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly currently have the power to vote with a two-thirds majority for early Dissolution. In Scotland and Wales, the relevant Acts provide that if the early Dissolution is more than six months before the scheduled election, the scheduled election must still take place. Elections to the devolved legislatures must be held on the first Thursday in May. We want to give them the power to extend, because if they have only the power to hold elections earlier, elections would effectively have to be held in the depths of winter. The Government have listened on that point, which is why we want to consult the legislatures on the ability to extend the date, which will give them much more flexibility.
It is worth making two other points. First, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections are materially different from local government elections in England. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are legislatures, and they already have a limited power to vary the date of their elections. In England in recent decades, general elections have frequently been combined with local elections. Combining local and mayoral elections with a UK general election is normal practice in England. It is easily managed and should continue unchanged.
Chris Bryant: The Minister is obviously making a sensible proposal in that regard, but I presume that such a change requires primary legislation, and that he intends to advance that in the Bill. I hope that he does not expect to make amendments in the House of Lords. Will he give an undertaking this evening that any such proposal will be made on Report in this House, and not at any later stage?
Mr Harper: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the Labour party recognises that my proposal is sensible. We will consult with the parties in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and introduce those changes at a later stage-I hope to do so sooner rather than later.
The position in Northern Ireland is slightly different. One difference in the Northern Ireland settlement is that if the date of the election is brought forward by whatever period, the original scheduled election does not have to be held. Also, the responsibility for Assembly elections, including the date, remains a matter for the Northern Ireland Secretary. He also holds the power to shift the date by two months either way, whereas the date for Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections can be shifted by only one month. I have discussed that in great detail with Northern Ireland Ministers.
Given the difference of the Northern Ireland settlement, and that next year there is a triple combination of Assembly elections, local elections and the referendum, Northern Ireland Ministers want to learn form that
experience to see whether the existing power is sufficient or whether they wish to modify it. They will consult parties in Northern Ireland, both now and after next May, to see whether a further change needs to be made. If so, we will legislate to bring it into force.
Mark Durkan: I thank the Minister for recognising that the position in Northern Ireland is different. In putting my name to new clause 4, I was conscious that it was in clear tension with sections 31 and 32 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to which he alluded. Will he give an explicit assurance, however, that Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office will involve all the parties in Northern Ireland in discussions? The 1998 Act was derived from the Good Friday agreement, was based on negotiations and agreements with all parties, and should be amended only by using the proper review mechanisms in full and true spirit.
Mr Harper: As in Scotland and Wales, we want to hold these discussions with all the parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly, because this is a matter not for whoever happens to be running the Administration, but for the Assembly and all the parties represented in it.
Mark Durkan: Will the Minister indicate whether Ministers might at least be open to hearing a clear statement from all the parties, and perhaps the Assembly at large, that our preference would be for parliamentary elections on a four-year cycle, so that they do not clash with the Assembly? That would be the easiest way to avoid all sorts of problems. The formula that the Minister is using to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to move its date might be an unachievable test: it might be impossible in the mixed-party circumstances of Northern Ireland ever to achieve a two-thirds majority, so we could be left with a political crisis and uncertainty. It would be a lot better to fix the cycles.
Mr Harper: There are two issues there. First, we recognise that the existing legal position and structure of politics in Northern Ireland are different, which is why we have adopted this different approach. There will therefore be extensive consultation with Northern Ireland Ministers and all the parties in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) hit on a second point though. Changing the cycles and adopting four-year terms for both this Parliament and the devolved legislatures would not solve the problem, because there can be early elections-if, for example, there is a vote of no confidence. If we had four-year cycles for everything and one early election, we could end up with the cycles coinciding not once every 20 years, as under our proposals, but at every general and devolved election, which would make the problem worse not better. Under our proposals, the coincidence will happen only once every 20 years, not more frequently.
The hon. Gentleman, who has been following the Bill's progress very closely, will know that we have allocated the second day in Committee for next Wednesday, but we have not announced a day on Report,
so there is not a date to hold back. We have not been rushing through the Bill's proceedings at great pace.
Mr MacNeil: I have three points for clarification. Is the Minister guaranteeing that there will be no clash of election days between, say, Scotland and Westminster? Will he guarantee that the six months he has spoken about will be put into legislation? Finally, who will have the power to shift the dates? We feel that that should be for the devolved legislatures. Also, the point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the difficulties of getting a two-thirds majority was apposite. But it is all in the mix.
Mr Harper: I thought that I made it clear that it would be a two-thirds decision for-in the hon. Gentleman's case-the Scottish Parliament. It could not be a simple majority, because effectively that would give the power to the First Minister of Scotland or someone leading a majority Administration simply to choose a date that suited them-and that would be wrong. It would therefore be for the Parliament to make a choice about the election date.
Mr Harper: The Scottish Parliament would have the choice to consider the date. It could be moved by up to six months-it does not have to be six months-but it would be for the Parliament to make the decision. I gave a commitment that we would make that change in the Bill at a later stage of its progress.
Let me turn briefly to amendment 32, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) spoke on behalf of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform and which was effectively about whether we should reset the clock when there is an early election. The Committee's train of thought, which she set out, was that if a party knew that it would get only the remainder of the term, it would be less inclined to pass a Dissolution motion or a no-confidence motion. Her Committee suggested that if that was the case, we would not need the super-majority proposal for an early Dissolution. There is a technical problem with amendment 32 as drafted, because it would allow an early election to be held at any time, right up to the next scheduled election, but would still force the scheduled election to take place, so we could have an election in March and then another in May, which would not be very sensible.
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