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Michael Gove: I, too, have been fortunate enough to visit some of the outstanding schools in Sheffield, some of them supported by the outstanding leadership shown by the Liberal Democrat councillors on Sheffield council. [Interruption.] No, they have been very good actually. [Interruption.] No, they have been very impressive-a lot more impressive than councillors on many Labour local authorities-and I will work with them to ensure that funding is targeted on the very poorest, so that the hon. Gentleman's constituents get the education they deserve.
Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): Oxford and Cambridge universities recruit more students from Westminster school and Eton college than from the entire body of pupils qualifying for free school meals. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the many measures he is taking to address both that iniquity and many others that beset our education system. Will he tell us more about his plans to reduce exam grade inflation and to improve opportunities to attain core academic knowledge?
Michael Gove: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. I have had the great pleasure of visiting a sixth-form college in her constituency, which, using its autonomy, does a superb job in raising standards for children from a variety of backgrounds. There should be no compromise on academic excellence. That is why we are asking Ofqual to benchmark our exams against the world's best.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): Given the intention to expand the use of traditional uniforms in schools and the fact that only a minority of local authorities provide grants for school uniforms, what support will be made available for already overstretched parents to meet the extra costs involved?
Michael Gove: One of the many things the last Government did that was wise was to recognise that it is important that support is given to all schools in order to ensure children have access to high-quality school uniforms. In many cases a high-quality school uniform is not only a shrewd investment for the parent, but a wise choice for the school in building a sense of corporate identity. We want to make sure that the cost of uniforms is never a barrier to a child accessing a school, and the admissions code specifies that.
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): I welcome the White Paper's focus on the fundamental importance of the quality of teaching. My right hon. Friend spoke about what the Government will be doing to recruit the best and to improve teacher training. Will he say a bit more about what the White Paper has to offer existing teachers in my constituency and throughout the country in continuing professional development and flexibility in terms and conditions?
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend makes two very good points. It is crucial that we support our existing teachers to do even better. As a number of Members have said, we have a great current crop of teachers in our schools, but the best way they can improve is through making sure they have a chance to observe the best and to be observed, and that is one of the reasons we are scrapping the so-called three-hour rule, which serves to limit observation of great teaching.
David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State's statement. Will he say a little more about his plans for teaching schools, and in particular how they will better support the schools around them?
Michael Gove: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The teaching schools that we will establish must act as hubs and serve as an exemplar of how teachers can be trained for all schools in their area. At present, we have that model of teaching school in embryo in Manchester, the black country and London. We want to spread them, so as to ensure that in the south-west, the south-east and the north-east there are more great and outstanding schools providing that sort of support.
Jonathan Lord (Woking) (Con): I welcome the White Paper. Is my right hon. Friend aware that pupils can pass a GCSE in English without reading a novel? What will he do about that?
Michael Gove: We are working with the exams regulator, Ofqual, to make sure our exams are as rigorous as those in the world's most demanding education jurisdictions. It is vital that we encourage more people in this country to read fiction- [Interruption.]-and I am sure the right hon. Member for Leigh has already thought of all sorts of quips that he will be only too happy to use against me as a result of my having made that comment.
Mr Speaker: I call Mr Pincher.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker; clearly, I am moving up the batting order in this particular sport.
In welcoming my right hon. Friend's White Paper, may I ask him to encourage greater vertical integration between primary and secondary schools? One issue that teachers in Tamworth have raised with me is the number of primary school children who do not have the necessary reading and writing skills when they move on to secondary school, and we need to improve that.
Michael Gove: My hon. Friend is bang on the button, and one of the reasons we are establishing primary academies and integrating primary schools into academy chains is to deal with precisely that issue. The last Government said the creation of primary academies would send a chill down the spine of every parent, but actually the creation of many new primary academies has meant that parents enjoy smaller class sizes and higher standards and children better prepared for the world of work and further learning. This is a reform that I hope every party represented in the House will now support.
Mr Speaker: I call Rehman Chishti.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Last but not least.
I welcome the statement as representing an excellent way forward. Will the anonymity for teachers who are the subject of false accusations last until conviction?
The intention is that anonymity should last until charging. We do not want to interfere with the way the courts operate, but we do want to ensure that
teachers who may face vexatious or mischievous allegations are protected. That is crucial, and I am very glad that the right hon. Member for Leigh will support us in bringing forward that measure.
Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will recall that during Prime Minister's Question Time my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Bain) asked the Prime Minister about the mobility component of disability living allowance for those in residential accommodation and the Government's plans for people in those circumstances. The Prime Minister said in reply that the official Opposition supported the Government's position. I observed that the Prime Minister was being advised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I recall that the Chancellor made the same comment to the House at Treasury questions a week or so ago. I seek your advice on the following point, Mr Speaker. The fact is that my Opposition Front-Bench colleagues assured me right up until when the last statement was being made that that is not the policy of the official Opposition, and that we are utterly opposed to it-
Mr Speaker: Order. I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). He is an extremely experienced and assiduous Member and I was waiting expectantly, with bated breath and beads of sweat upon my brow, for the point of order he was going to raise, and I think we have now just about reached it, except that it is not a point of order. It is, I think, a point of debate, at which the right hon. Gentleman is very adept, but I am afraid we will have to leave it there. There is nothing on which I need to rule, although it is always a pleasure to hear from the right hon. Gentleman.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think that, like me, you are very concerned when Ministers widely trail announcements prior to their being made in this House. I cannot recall a more widely trailed ministerial statement than the one just made by the Secretary of State for Education. The statement and the White Paper have been extensively trailed in the newspapers over the past four or five days-I have many examples here. I know that you are against that practice, so I wonder whether you would like to comment.
Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As he knows, I believe very strongly, on behalf of the House, that statements of policy should be made first to this House and not through the media. He will appreciate that I keep a very attentive eye on these matters and I seek to perform the role of a detective such as I am able; I am always on the lookout for decisive evidence. But as to the specifics of today, I have nothing to add. I just say to the hon. Gentleman that I have his interests at heart-I hope he will realise that-and these matters are continually under review. If there are no further points of order-
Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab) rose-
Mr Speaker: The shadow Secretary of State cannot resist.
I cannot. Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You asked for evidence. The Financial Times was given drafts of the White Paper and I can
supply that evidence to you. My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) is right that on this occasion there seems to have been a widespread breach of your stricture about making announcements first to this House. I will provide that evidence, but I would be grateful if you would then raise this matter with the Government.
Mr Speaker: I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have no desire to quibble with him or any other Member, but I did not ask for evidence; I simply said that I am always on the lookout for the evidence, which is not quite the same thing. I think that the matter must be parked for today. I have referred previously to the fact of the Procedure Committee inquiry into statements, to which he and other of his colleagues, and other Members from across the House, might wish to submit evidence. The matter will be kept, on an ongoing basis, under review. If he wants to bring to me particular instances of alleged abuse, he can do so. For today, that must not be done on the Floor of the Chamber, but on another occasion. If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule motion; the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) has been patiently awaiting her opportunity.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23 )
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require action plans to be prepared for the provision of education and health services for children and adults with epilepsy and related conditions; to make provision about support for children and adults with epilepsy and related conditions; and for connected purposes.
Let me offer the following words to the House: complex, fascinating and unique. I could be talking about us and the spouses and partners of hon. Members, but I am describing the human brain, which is at the centre and the focus of epilepsy and other related conditions, such as non-epileptic seizures. The human brain is the most complex organ in the living world. It contains 10 billion neurones, which cause seizures if they fire excessively. Sometimes there are structural and genetic reasons for such seizures and sometimes they are idiopathic, which means that there are no known causes.
As a society, we are failing children and adults with these conditions. Today I hope to persuade the Government to support my Bill, which proposes an action plan in health and education that is big on impact and low on costs, but could lead to savings in the short and long term and, more importantly, could save lives. With a swish of the Secretary of State's pen, this could lead to benefits to society, both economic and general, and to many individuals with epilepsy, whose lives are adversely affected by poor health or education provision.
Nearly 500,000 people in the UK have epilepsy-that is one in every 131 people-and so in an average constituency 705 people will have it. Many of them will struggle throughout their lives with stigma, unemployment and fear. They look to our NHS to support them, but it fails them. There are centres of excellence throughout the country, and Britain leads the world in epilepsy research, but unfortunately we are lagging well behind in practice. The tragic part is that, on average, three people a day die of epilepsy-related causes and one of those three deaths every day is avoidable with good treatment. Four hundred people are therefore dying needlessly each and every year, which is more than the total of AIDS-related deaths and cot deaths combined. The death rate in Britain is about 25% higher than the median for the EU, and these deaths are particularly tragic because the greatest risk is in the 16 to 35 age bracket. That figure of 400 represents nearly two thirds of the people in this Chamber; there would be an outcry if something affected two thirds of this Chamber every year, but these deaths go unnoticed.
The first challenge is diagnosis, and the failure rate is alarming. Studies show a misdiagnosis rate of 20 to 31%, with one study of childhood epilepsy showing a rate of 40%. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines require a specialist to make the diagnosis and a first specialist appointment to take place within two weeks of a seizure. Without a diagnosis, there can be no treatment. The patient can experience many negative events with severe consequences, including death, before they are even seen by the specialist and treated. A recent survey of NHS trusts published in
January 2009 by Epilepsy Action showed that more than 90% failed to meet the two-week deadline, and it is the patient who has been paying the price.
For many, the misdiagnosis continues for decades, and doctors prescribe different drugs on a trial-and-error basis. What is required is a tertiary referral to a specialist who can get the diagnosis right. It is estimated that an extra 20% of people with epilepsy could be seizure-free with the right treatment. In England alone, that would translate to a massive 69,000 more people free of seizures and able to play a full part in society. Tertiary referral is also needed to establish who can benefit from surgery, which can cure epilepsy in some people. It is estimated that only 25% of children who could benefit from surgery get access to it.
The medical costs alone of misdiagnosis are estimated at more than £22 million each year: every mistreated patient calls on our overstretched NHS, as general practitioner visits, repeated hospitalisations and generalist consultant time are absorbed. GPs should be able to refer directly to an epilepsy specialist, rather than to a secondary generalist. Other vital issues to address include: the employment of life-enhancing and cost-saving epilepsy specialist nurses; the low level of epilepsy specialist neurologists; and the many people who have been wrongly diagnosed with epilepsy and spend the rest of their lives taking powerful drugs with serious side effects for no good reason.
I shall now discuss education and why we need an action plan to support our children. The following extract from the 1978 Warnock report on special education remains as valid today as it was at the time:
"many children with epilepsy may have serious problems in concentration and behaviour, which affect their learning....Their particular difficulties are not always recognised by schools and colleges, and better arrangements for reviewing their progress are needed....if these children are to be helped to develop their potential to the full."
The actions proposed by Warnock still need implementation. Approximately 40,000 children with epilepsy are in mainstream schools, and about half of all children with epilepsy are underachieving in relation to their intellectual ability. Epilepsy is defined by the Department for Education as being a purely medical condition in the same category as asthma and diabetes, but that comparison is flawed. With the proper management of medication, a large majority of children with diabetes and asthma have little or no education or behavioural challenges, whereas that is not the case for children with epilepsy. Epilepsy is a medical condition that frequently has an impact on learning, well-being and behaviour; it is more akin to autism.
There is no reference to epilepsy in the Department for Education's key special educational needs document. That lack of recognition hampers teachers as it results in a failure to provide advice or to recognise that sometimes epilepsy can take on the form of absences, where children literally space out. Professor Brian Neville, former Prince of Wales chair of childhood epilepsy, has said:
"As well as the potential for seizures to make the child miss lessons, epilepsy can cause short and long-term memory problems, difficulties with concentration and information retention. Often teachers don't fully understand why a child may appear to lack effort or attention and achieve poorly. Variable behaviour can be misinterpreted as being wilful."
Even when the children are on drugs, those often have a side effect. Whereas those with mild dyslexia are afforded extra time in examinations, children with a diagnosis of epilepsy or a history of non-epileptic seizures are not afforded that; nor are they given any attention.
The Department needs to recognise epilepsy as a special educational need and to recognise that it can affect those with higher than average intellectual ability who may be achieving only at a comparatively low level. To give children with epilepsy and related conditions an individual assessment to establish what support they need would involve the average secondary school undertaking only one assessment a year. Without that assessment, it is impossible to know how best to support a child with epilepsy or related conditions so that the legal duty to them is satisfied-that is, that reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that they are not placed at a disadvantage in education or other services. Such a move would anticipate where the barriers to learning would lie and take action to remove them.
In this way, people can fulfil their potential like other high-profile people with epilepsy-they can become the next Dostoevsky, and can write poetry like Lord Byron or beautiful songs like Neil Young. We owe it to all those people whose deaths could have been avoided and who never reached their promise. I ask the House and the Government to support an action plan for tertiary referral in health and an annual assessment in education to save the needless loss of life and to enable our children and adults to fulfil their hopes and dreams.
That Valerie Vaz, Mr David Amess, Jeremy Corbyn, Mrs Mary Glindon, Mr Sam Gyimah, Paul Maynard, Steve McCabe, Grahame M. Morris, Pamela Nash, Bob Russell, Laura Sandys and Owen Smith present the Bill.
Valerie Vaz accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday, 4 March and to be printed (Bill 112).
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A( 7 )),
That the Order of 13 September 2010 (Fixed-term Parliaments Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) in paragraph 2, for "two days" there shall be substituted "three days";
(2) in paragraph 4, for "at the moment of interruption on the second day" there shall be substituted "three hours after the commencement of the proceedings on the third day".-( James Duddridge.)
[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, HC 436, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 7951 .]
Further considered in Committee
Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I beg to move amendment 33, page 1, line 22, leave out from 'if' to end of clause and add
'on an address presented to Her Majesty by the House of Commons praying that a day be the polling day for an early parliamentary general election, Her Majesty appoints this day by proclamation to be the polling day for such an election.
(2) No motion shall be made for such an address except by the Prime Minister acting with the agreement of-
(a) the Leader of the Opposition; and
(b) each member of the House of Commons who at the time of the motion being made is the registered leader of a registered party that received more than 20 per cent. of the total votes cast at the previous parliamentary general election.
(3) An early parliamentary general election shall not otherwise take place.
(4) Subsection (1) applies for the purposes of the Timetable in rule 1 in Schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983.
"Leader of the Opposition" means the person who is the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons for the purposes of section 2 of the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975;
"registered leader", in relation to a party, means the person registered as that party's leader in accordance with section 24 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000;
"registered party" means a party registered in a register of political parties maintained by the Electoral Commission in accordance with section 23 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.'.
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Nigel Evans): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment 21, page 2, line 2, leave out 'early' and insert 'immediate'.
Amendment 4, page 2, leave out lines 3 to 7.
Amendment 34, in clause 3, page 2, line 28, leave out '(6)'.
Amendment 35, in clause 4, page 3, line 15, leave out '(6)'.
Mrs Laing: Once again, I bring to the Chamber the apologies of the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, for his absence. He is, unfortunately, unable to be here, but I assure hon. Members that he is probably watching proceedings and that he will be better soon. He is still carrying out his duties as Chairman, but it is difficult for him to be here in the Chamber.
I am pleased to move the amendment tabled by the Select Committee, or at least some members of it. It concerns the House's procedure for determining the way in which an early election can be called. I, personally, do not support its wording and I shall not insist on putting it to a vote, and if others do so, I shall not vote for it. There is nothing wrong with that, as I am merely moving it. It forms an important part of the Select Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill and, as such, it should be put before the Committee so that it can be properly discussed.
The amendment reflects some of the arguments that were heard during the Select Committee's inquiry into the Bill. I simply wish to ensure that hon. Members have the chance to examine these important issues. The amendment proposes an alternative way of bringing about what the Government seek to achieve in clause 2. It does not oppose the Bill's aims in any way, but simply proposes an alternative that hon. Members should consider.
As an alternative form, the amendment would have three advantages. First, it would avoid the risks involved in implementing the Government's proposal that a two thirds majority should be required for a vote to have effect. Secondly, it would avoid what the Committee described as the "uncertain" consequences of the provisions in the Bill on motions of no consequence- [ Laughter. ] That was a visual rather than a grammatical problem, and if the Committee will forgive me, I shall try again. I meant to say motions of no confidence, which would include the possibility of a Government
"subverting the purpose of the Bill by tabling and voting for a motion of no confidence in itself in order to trigger an early general election without the need for a super-majority."
Thirdly, the amendment would largely deal with the concern of the Clerk of the House, articulated to the Select Committee, that this part of the Bill would infringe the House's "exclusive cognisance" over its own proceedings-its right to decide for itself how its business should be done, and the concomitant principle that the courts will not interfere. When the Clerk told us of his concerns, we shared them, so tabling the amendment allows us to consider those real and well-founded concerns. I am aware that other amendments that we shall discuss this afternoon would deal with the situation in different ways, but amendment 33 proposes a simpler way of getting around those concerns. It would ensure that an early general election could take place only with cross-party support.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I am sorry to intervene at such an early stage of my hon. Friend's comments, but I notice that proposed new subsection (2)(b) states that
"each member of the House of Commons who at the time of the motion being made is the registered leader of a registered party that received more than 20 per cent. of the total votes cast at the previous parliamentary general election."
Those are the people who are supposed to decide whether there will be a confidence motion. What does my hon. Friend feel about the fact that the proposal will disfranchise the representatives of between 3.5 million and 4 million people?
Mrs Laing: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, and I find myself in some difficulty. I am happy to respond to it, but of course I agree with it. I am proposing the amendment not because I am passionate about it, but simply so that the Committee can discuss it. He is right to raise one of the issues that should be discussed. I take it that he means people who are represented by parties such as the nationalist parties. In that respect, if the amendment were accepted by the Committee and by the Government and if it became part of the Bill, I would find myself wishing further to amend it, to the effect that the parties concerned should be those that received more than 20% of the vote in the nation in the United Kingdom where their candidates stood for election. I hope that answers my hon. Friend's question. However, I do not think we need to go into that in much greater detail.
The amendment provides that an early general election would take place only when the House agreed by a simple majority to a motion in the name of the Prime Minister, tabled with the agreement of the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of any political party that had received more than 20% of the national vote at the previous general election, with the extra proviso that I have just added in response to my hon. Friend's well-made point.
Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): The hon. Lady may not be aware of this, but my recollection is that the Scottish Conservatives did not receive 20% of the vote in Scotland at the last general election. Is she saying, therefore, that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) would not be able to take part in that process?
Mrs Laing: No, not at all. I appreciate the political point that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make, but that would make no difference because the Conservative party throughout the United Kingdom as a whole obtained considerably more than 20% of the popular vote, and in some places, such as Epping Forest-I am very pleased to say-a mere 54%. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly good point, but it would be a pity to take up the time of the Committee looking in detail at the percentages involved. My purpose in putting the issue before the Committee is to address the serious concerns relating to exclusive cognisance, which were put to the Select Committee by the Clerk, whose opinion on the matter we take very seriously. The Committee, too, should esteem the Clerk's opinion and recognise his concerns, and this is an opportunity for Members to consider them.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP):
Is the hon. Lady aware of the various bids for independence from Conservatives south of the border
made from time to time by Conservatives in Scotland? The point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) might hold: the proposals could lead to the exclusion of the solitary, lonely Scottish Conservative figure on the Government Benches.
Mrs Laing: It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to stand up for my right hon. Friend, as I do frequently, but my right hon. Friend is not, of course, the leader of a political party in the House. The Prime Minister is leader of the Conservative party, with a large proportion of the popular vote throughout the country behind him, and undertakes that task very well indeed.
Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): I am filled with admiration at the extent to which the hon. Lady is managing to disagree with herself. Could she return to the question put by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), and the legitimate point that there will be parties that receive significantly less than the threshold that she proposes, and will thus have no voice in the process? That cannot be democratic.
Mrs Laing: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He is right, too, in his first point:
"Frailty, thy name is woman."
I can disagree with myself or anyone else when called to do so. If it is my duty, I can be-well, I think we will leave that aside.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
Mrs Laing: I appreciate that line from Shakespeare, too.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) is correct. There is some difficulty with the arithmetic threshold set out in the amendment, but there is also a matter of principle, and on this point I will argue with myself-or rather I will, as an individual, disagree with the relevant part of the Select Committee report. I think the correct democratic process is to consult the House as a whole, not merely the leaders of particular parties in the House. There is then a problem in defining how the democratic process should work when the House is considering consulting the leaders of political parties. If there was a party that had only one Member, one leader and a very small proportion of the vote, it would be ignored and that does not quite work.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): I commend the hon. Lady for the excellent job that she is doing in putting forward an amendment with which she is not in entire agreement. As she told the Committee, she is making it on behalf of the Select Committee, of which I am also a member, and it expresses the concern that we heard from the Clerk about the way in which the Government's proposals might be subject to challenge in the courts, were they to go forward unamended. Will she join me in hoping that when the Minister responds, he will be able to give an assurance that the Clerk's concerns have been taken into account, and that any process that was followed under the Bill would not be subject to such challenge?
Mrs Laing: That is precisely the point. I thank the hon. Gentleman both for putting it so succinctly, and for putting his name to the amendment so that I am not alone in disagreeing with myself. The point that he made is the crux of the matter, and I am sure the Minister has picked that up and has already considered it. I have every confidence that he will respond to it in a short time.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): To reinforce the hon. Lady's opposition to her own amendment, it should be pointed out that under proposed new subsection (2)(b) of the amendment, it is not necessarily the case that the registered leaders of all the registered parties are Members of the House. The First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, who are the registered leaders, are not Members of the House. That is another reason why the amendment is flawed.
Mrs Laing: Indeed. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Once again, the details of proposed new subsection (2)(b)-that is not
"To be, or not to be"
-we are going back in again! I do not think we need any more Shakespeare, and I will be called to order if I go any further down that road.
The matters identified by the right hon. Gentleman would have to be considered in more detail if the amendment were to become part of the Bill. I predict that the Minister will not accept it. As I said, I hope not, because I would have to vote against it and as the Committee knows, I am uncomfortable voting against my Government and the Minister. The amendment does not have to become part of the Bill, but the points made to the Select Committee by the Clerk of the House are serious and important, and the Committee will wish to be reassured that the Minister has considered them.
Mr Shepherd: Is not the difficulty for my hon. Friend and those on behalf of whom she is promoting the amendment that they have put it in a statutory form, whereas the Clerk's solution was that it should be in the form of Standing Orders of the House? To read across is not possible. On the face of it, the amendment looks absurd, so I am puzzled why it is even before the Committee.
Mrs Laing: Let me explain further. The Select Committee rushed through its pre-legislative scrutiny process, because of the timetable for the publication of the Bill, Second Reading and Committee. Inevitably, the Select Committee had to take evidence and consider matters quickly and briefly. It is important that the issues considered by the Select Committee are put before the Committee. I have every confidence that the Minister will assure the Committee in due course that he and his colleagues have considered all the points made in the pre-legislative scrutiny report by the Select Committee.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP):
This is not about subsection (2)(b). If it would assist the hon. Lady in arguing against her own amendment, does she recognise that other amendments that she has tabled, such as amendment 37, if accepted, would create a serious problem in relation to amendment 33? That rests on the
Prime Minister discharging a particular function, whereas under amendment 37 there could be circumstances in which there was no Prime Minister to discharge that function.
Mrs Laing: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is right. We will debate amendment 37 in the next group, and I am sure I will be called to order if I go into the details of it at this point.
Once again, I am not seeking, and the Select Committee was not seeking, to put forward a coherent succession of amendments in an attempt to change the Bill. I want to make sure that the Committee has an opportunity, as it has now had, to consider the issues of exclusive cognisance and the way in which the Standing Orders of the House will be affected by the Bill. That is why I hope the Committee's Chairman will excuse my arguing against myself, while putting the points that the Select Committee wished to make here. It is important that the results of the pre-legislative scrutiny that we undertook should be put before the Committee.
Sir Peter Soulsby: On pre-legislative scrutiny and the point made by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), does the hon. Lady agree that the fundamental problem with the amendment is that it was tabled in the absence of time for adequate pre-legislative scrutiny, and that it is very much a second-best? The point about the preference of the Clerk for the matter to be dealt with in the Standing Orders of the House ought to have been given more time and more consideration, and there should have been an opportunity for the Committee to consider that as an alternative to the amendment.
Mrs Laing: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is correct. I recognise that that is why he put his name to the amendment. It is a pity that we have not had an opportunity in some other way to go into these matters. However, I reiterate that the Committee has an opportunity now to consider matters relating to exclusive cognisance and the Standing Orders. I hope the Committee will take that opportunity, but I have every confidence that the Minister will also take the opportunity to reassure us. Amendment 33 is merely an alternative that I put before the Committee for consideration.
Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Since my elevation to the Back Benches six weeks ago, I have put a number of supplementary questions by way of interventions. This is the first time that I have spoken from the Back Benches in 23 years.
It is a delight to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who represents my home area, Loughton in Essex, where from a very early age I used to be sent out delivering leaflets and canvassing against the local Conservative party, never to any effect. My mother continued to represent the area in which we lived, first on the district council and later on the town council, until she was in her 80s. Thankfully, she is still alive.
I have witnessed many occasions when a Member has moved an amendment that they do not understand. Indeed, I can think of one occasion 30 years ago on the Finance Bill when I moved an amendment that I did not understand-an embarrassment made worse by the fact
that it was I who had drafted it. For the life of me, I could not work out what it meant, although I am pleased to say that officials in the Treasury, as it turned out-the Minister later showed me his briefing-had gone through all sorts of intellectual contortions to guess at that piece of total gibberish. Never before have I heard an hon. Member from either side of the House move an amendment with which they profoundly disagreed, but I admire the way in which the hon. Lady very loyally made the case for the group's lead amendment while ensuring that her own reservations about it were put on the record.
The hon. Lady said something very important about the Bill: the reason why the Select Committee ended up with the amendment, which is difficult to follow in its terms, was that it had "rushed through pre-legislative scrutiny". That is the responsibility not of the Committee, but very much of the Government, who decided to push the Bill through for no reason that I can comprehend.
I profoundly disagree with the Government's timetable for the boundaries and AV referendum Bill, but, given the time scale involved, it is at least understandable why they judge it necessary to push the legislation through. The Bill before us is on fixed-term Parliaments, however, and there is not the least prospect of an early general election at any time in the next three years.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is being slightly disingenuous. Is not the most obvious reason why the Bill is here, before us, that the coalition partners are worried that the other one will welsh out?
Mr Straw: Of course. I was going to come on to that, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for leading me down that path. There is no reason to rush through legislation for a fixed-term Parliament, because, even if we do not have the Bill, there is no prospect of a general election being called, in almost any circumstances, within the next three years.
The Liberal Democrat and Labour parties were committed by their manifestos to the principle of a fixed-term Parliament, but the Conservatives' proposal ran directly counter to that, because it stated that a general election should be called within six months of any change of Prime Minister, meaning that, if the Prime Minister had suddenly passed away or something else had happened to him and he was no longer in office, we could have had a general election within a twelvemonth.
We know, however, that the structure of the Bill and the rush derive not from the pursuit of a sensible idea for which there is all-party support, but from narrow, partisan reasons related to the internal chemistry that both parties feared and, I think, still fear could be explosive in difficult circumstances.
Mr Straw: I am glad to have the hon. Lady's endorsement.
As we know, that was precisely the reason why, miraculously, of all the numbers that the coalition partners could have chosen, they originally alighted on the trigger level of 55%, because it would have given neither partner the ability to force an early general election against the wishes of the other.
Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Gentleman says that there is no prospect of a general election for a number of years, but may I mischievously suggest that he shows greater faith in the coalition partners than they show in themselves and each other?
Mr Straw: I would like to have such faith. My faith in the Conservative party's ability to pursue its own interests and survival and to consume other, minor parties-mainly ones beginning with 'L'-is always high. My faith in the Liberal Democrat party's ability to secure its own survival was never particularly strong and has completely plummeted following the coalition deal. Shortly after the election, a Conservative peer told me-literally licking his lips at the prospect-of how he would happily predict that the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party would go the same way as previous Liberal parties, once they had been embraced by the suffocating hug of the Conservative party, and disappear for a number of decades into oblivion. I am glad to see that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is, if not quite licking his lips, smiling in approbation at the prospect.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman neglects to mention the Lib-Lab pact in the late '70s, which I am sure he will remember, and that the Liberals got through unscathed.
Mr Straw: But the pact was not with the Conservative party. Sadly, in some ways, the Labour party is far less ruthless than the Conservative party when it comes to worrying about its own survival. I am happy to discuss the details and the highways and byways of the Lib-Lab pact, because I worked as a special adviser, as they were pompously called and, I think, still are, to the great Peter Shore at the time-and necessary it was, too. In those days, at least the Liberals had some sense of which side they were on, but they have abandoned even that idea since.
I shall speak specifically to amendment 4 in the name of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, which would delete clause 2(1)(c), the measure providing the two-thirds trigger for a Dissolution. The hon. Lady made a slip of the tongue that, as often with such slips, held a revealing truth. She talked of a motion of "no consequences", rather than a motion of no confidence, and, apart from the fact that I object to the idea of special majorities in the House, it seems to me that the trigger is wholly redundant, unnecessary and, indeed, offends the role of the House in holding the Executive to account. Now that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have had to abandon the completely naked idea of a 55% trigger, which would have enabled the most extraordinary circumstances to arise, they should abandon the provision before us, including the two-thirds trigger, altogether.
The provision was included in the Bill as a copy-out from sections 3 and 46 of the Scotland Act 1998. The Deputy Prime Minister first tried to make up the arguments for the measure on the hoof, and somebody pointed out
to him that such a trigger existed in the 1998 Act. He suggested that it was a completely rigid trigger, and that the only way in which an election for the Scottish Parliament could be called was by a two-thirds majority of every MSP. Closer examination of sections 3 and 46 of the 1998 Act shows that that is simply not the case, however.
Section 3 does, indeed, provide for an early election if
"two-thirds of the total number"
of MSPs vote for one or, as subsection (1)(b) goes on to state, if
"any period during which the Parliament is required...to nominate one of its members...as First Minister ends without such a nomination being made."
Under section 46, the First Minister's nomination is by a simple majority. If it transpires that nobody in the Scottish Parliament can command a simple majority-in other words that no confidence in either party is declared and the Government in Scotland cannot continue-there is by virtue of that fact an election, and that is entirely right.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, and I want to push him on the points that he is making. The possibility of a no-confidence vote still exists in the Bill, and if a Government could not be formed in 14 days we would go to a general election. Would he prefer the power to call a general election to remain solely in the gift of the Prime Minister or in the gift of this House?
Mr Straw: I am in favour of a fixed-term Parliament, although I would have wished it to be four years. So, too, did the Liberal Democrats wish it to be four years. Indeed, they spelled that out in a document dated 10 May 2010 headed "Recovery and Renewal", which contained their proposals in the coalition talks for what became the coalition agreement. I am indebted not to the department of open government in the Liberal Democrat headquarters for providing wider sight of this, because whatever they think about the Freedom of Information Act 2000, they certainly do not apply it to themselves, but to the New Statesman and its website. For greater accuracy, however, I have a copy here. It says:
"Immediate legislation to...set the date of the next election for June 2014, and establish"-
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Ah!
Mr Straw: I will repeat that because I know that my hon. Friend must have misheard it:
"Immediate legislation to...set the date of the next election for June 2014, and establish the principle of four-year fixed term Parliaments in future."
[ Interruption. ] The Deputy Leader of the House is mumbling from a sedentary position. If he thinks that I have misread that, I am extremely happy to be corrected. However, it ill behoves the Liberal Democrats-I am sorry, I almost said the Conservatives: that was a Freudian slip-and, particularly, the Deputy Prime Minister to suggest that a five-year term is a matter of principle, as opposed to a four-year term, when they proposed a four-year term and agreed to a five-year term only as a result of some rather scrubby back-stairs deal.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): Let me try to help the right hon. Gentleman, because I do not believe that he was here on the first day of Committee when we debated this matter, which is in clause 1. As we are now on clause 2, I do not want him to find himself out of order.
Mr Straw: I am sure that that is a matter for the Chair, but I was simply trying to provide a comprehensive answer to the hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke).
If we have a fixed-term Parliament, then of course the power of the Prime Minister to call an election is very significantly modified. I am concerned about the rights of this House. This House works by passing legislation, and all other matters, on the basis of votes by a simple majority. If we had a written constitution, which I am not against, we could have a separate debate about whether there should be some means or other of entrenching certain basic provisions. We are doing that in practice for some, but not others, by way of referendum, and for some, but not others, by way of convention and cross-party consensus. Meanwhile, however, regarding how this place works and good governance, we operate on the basis of a simple majority.
What we should be doing in the Bill is laying down a fixed term-I would prefer it to be four years, but it is going to be five-and then accepting the reality that circumstances could arise in which a Government of the day lost the confidence of the House. There is no alternative to that. No new Prime Minister could suddenly pop up and regain the confidence of the House. That being the case, there has to be an election, as happened after four and a half years of the '74 to '79 Government. It seems to me that those should be the only circumstances that should trigger an early election. I do not want there to be provision whereby, by some method or another, whether it is by a majority of a half, 55% or 67.5%, a package of Members can be got together in order to hold a general election. Nor do I think that those provisions would ever be used, because they are so complicated. There is no point in our passing legislation that has no significant purpose.
Mr MacNeil: I am genuinely listening with an open mind to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about a simple majority in Parliament. However, how can we control a Prime Minister who has a majority in the House and whips his party to vote for his will? How can we maintain the power of the Parliament when the Prime Minister controls parliamentarians through the Whips?
Mr Straw: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point as to whether a Prime Minister anxious for a general election could engineer a vote of no confidence. Even if these provisions stand as they are in the Bill, that would still be a technical possibility.
Mr MacNeil: It would be less likely.
Mr Straw: No, it would not. There is nothing in paragraph (c) that would, in law, prevent a Prime Minister from being party to an arrangement to secure his own demise and go for a general election. If these provisions go through, there will be nothing, in law, that can be done about that theoretical possibility.
Professor Robert Hazell, in evidence to the Lords Constitution Committee, made a very pertinent comment on this point when he said that political incentives should prove a force for stability. Whatever may have been appropriate in Germany in one very unusual case where the Chancellor did indeed arrange to move a motion of no confidence in his own Government, the prospect of a Prime Minister of this country coming to the House to move a motion of no confidence in his own Administration without suffering immediate popular and parliamentary derision, and a significant loss of votes at the poll that would then follow, is fanciful.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I might have expected that the right hon. Gentleman would hit the nail on the head. He is really talking about the great damage that lies within these provisions-namely, that they are in defiance of the democratic mandate. This is about Whips and patronage; it has nothing to do with the people outside. My only suggestion-it is not a criticism-would be that he may want to qualify his reference to the impact on this House by talking about the impact on our electoral and democratic system and thereby the damage done to the people of this country.
Mr Straw: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says and thank him for the compliment.
I have a number of rules that I try to follow in politics, one of which is that fancy tactics never work. This is a fancy tactic. I am sorry to say-it is not that I have anything personal against them-that one can see the Liberal Democrats, who were, as described by one of their members, a perpetual Opposition think-tank until they suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves in government, thinking up this wheeze on the basis that because it had happened in Scotland and, no doubt, in Latvia or Leichtenstein, it would work here. However, we have a more direct system of democracy; we may criticise, and I hope that we do. [ Interruption. ] I hear someone referring to Scotland. I happen to think, on reflection, that the relevant section in the Scotland Act is redundant, but different considerations applied at the time. One consideration-I mean this in no disobliging way to Scottish colleagues of all parties-is that the Scottish Parliament is a creature of this House, legally, whereas we have to be responsible for our own rules.
Mr MacNeil: Thanks for the SNP Government, then.
Mr Straw: It is the first time that I have ever been thanked for anything by a member of the Scottish National party. I hope that next April and May it says on every leaflet how deeply grateful the SNP is for the possibility and opportunity to serve in a Scottish Government and to enjoy all the rewards that have come its way from the money that the British people, of all parties, have provided.
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means: Order. The right hon. Gentleman said that he had some rules. Could he have another rule, which is to speak to the amendments in the group?
Mr Straw: I am sorry that I digressed, Mr Evans.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Mark Harper): This is not a fancy tactic-I would not know one if I saw one, although if I did I am sure I would have learned it from the right hon. Gentleman. It is very straightforward. We decided that if there were a general view in the House that there should be an early election, the House should have the power to cause one.
The right hon. Gentleman gave the example of Germany. The reason why the Government there engineered a vote of confidence was because there was no other mechanism for an early election. If we were to remove our provision, then if there were a general view in the political classes and in the country that there should be an early election, the only way of having one would be for the Government to engineer a vote of no confidence. That would not be very sensible or very honest.
Mr Straw: We need to speak about possibilities in the real world. The only example in recent times that I can think of when a Prime Minister has wanted to call an election of choice, without any necessity due to his parliamentary majority, is that of Edward Heath in January 1974. There was no way he would have got a two-thirds majority in favour of a Dissolution. In my view, the country as a whole and the Conservative party would have been saved a great deal if there had not been an early Dissolution at that point. I simply say that if we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, which is a good idea but will have consequences, we must ensure that a Government can get booted out only if a motion of no confidence is passed.
Chris Bryant: Is there not one other very significant difference between the drafting of the Scotland Act 1998 and of this Bill? In Scotland, the process involves considerable consultation with wider civic society and all the political parties, because it was concluded that the electoral system should virtually guarantee that one political party would never enjoy a majority. That is very different from the situation here.
Mr Straw: My hon. Friend makes a very important point.
Mr Cash: Following the Minister's intervention, may I take the liberty of correcting a point that was made regarding the German situation? Under the German constitution-a written constitution, of course-a two-thirds majority must be in each house, whereas the Bill's provision applies only to the House of Commons. In addition, and more importantly, it must be two thirds of all those who vote in the Division in question, not two thirds of all seats. That is a very important difference.
Mr Straw: I accept that, and the history of the German constitution is very different from the history of ours, even though to a large extent we wrote it.
I will finish where I began, by referring to the explanation by the hon. Lady of the amendment that she moved, with which she does not agree. She pointed out that that was a consequence of her Committee having to rush through pre-legislative scrutiny. I sat on the Front Bench for part of the debates on the Bill, and I have yet to hear any convincing explanation from the Minister as to why they had to rush the Bill through.
Mr MacNeil: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the higher the percentage of parliamentarians required to trigger an election, the less likely it is that any Prime Minister will call an election of choice, because it will be more difficult for them?
Mr Straw: If a Prime Minister really wanted to call an election of choice, they would not worry about the two-thirds majority requirement, because they would be very unlikely to get it. They would instead go for a motion of no confidence.
By legislating for a fixed-term Parliament, we will establish a clear political norm that Parliaments last for five years. Leaving aside the argument about whether the term should be four or five years, I happen to support that principle, and I believe that is where the British people are. However, if the confidence of the House is lost, or the Government of the day simply give up and vote for a motion of no confidence, there must be an election. In the absence of that, there should not.
I have arranged to go and sit in Westminster Hall at 4.30 pm to listen to a debate on a matter of interest to all Members from east Lancashire. If this debate is not concluded by then, I hope I may be excused.
Mr Cash: The Chamber is very empty, considering the significance of what is being done by clause 2. In a way, that reflects the decline of this Parliament, which some of us believe strongly needs to be rejuvenated, not on the basis of protestations of power being returned to the House, as we read in our manifesto, but in the reality of how legislation is introduced.
The clause is the turn of the screw by the coalition into our democratic system of government, which, at its essence, is about the individuality and votes of conscience of MPs, irrespective of the Whips and the patronage system. It creates a permanent constitutional change through a passive, silent revolution-the most silent revolution since our Parliament began. It is being done without a mandate of any kind for any party, in any manifesto, in any part of the political system.
Tristram Hunt: Is the hon. Gentleman as shocked as I am by the new constitutional principle that we are hearing from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills-that the manifestos upon which individual Members of Parliament were elected no longer mean anything, because the coalition agreement somehow supersedes everything that they were elected to stand for?
The First Deputy Chairman: Order. That is not part of the amendments before us, so Mr Cash, could you restrict yourself to the amendments, please?
Mr Cash: What I am saying, Mr Evans, is that the clause is being introduced without a mandate, using Parliament and patronage to undermine Parliament itself, not only now but in future. The voters, who have reposed their trust in us as MPs, are being severely damaged by what is being done today. As for the future, to quote T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton":
"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable."
So is this act of constitutional vandalism.
My amendment 4 is based on a simple point of principle, namely that a motion can be passed by a simple majority of one, as has been the case from time immemorial-from the very inception of our parliamentary process in what is sometimes described as the "mother of Parliaments". That is now being changed in a manner that will seriously alter the method whereby a Government may fall.
The merits of the various amendments, such as amendment 33 and my amendment 4, may differ. However, mine, which has been supported-without my encouragement, I have to say-by the Leader of the Opposition and therefore by the Opposition themselves, has the merit of simplicity and maintaining the status quo. Why have I tabled this amendment? It is because I object to the new-fangled idea that an early election would result from a motion, perhaps proposed by the Opposition, any MP or even the Government themselves, that requires-this is contrary to all constitutional precedent and history since our Parliament first sat representing the electors of this country-the support of two thirds or more of those eligible to vote as Members of Parliament. In other words, we are talking about seats and not the persons present in the House of Commons. That is a profound and dangerous doctrine.
Graham Stringer: I profoundly agree with the hon. Gentleman. Are there not two very offensive things about this proposal? It means that hon. Members of this House are equal apart from when there are votes for a Dissolution; if a Member is voting in a minority, their vote is worth more. Even more strange and offensive is that if a vote were to take place now, the electorate of Oldham East and Saddleworth would be enfranchised, when they are not enfranchised for any other vote in the House. Such a situation is absurd and offensive.
Mr Cash: The hon. Gentleman's point is extremely sensible and full of common sense, which is what this Bill lacks. This is about something else; it is not about the manner in which our democratic system functions. It is about something completely different and I will come to that in a moment.
Mark Durkan: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that his case against the idea of a special weighted majority for Dissolution in this House would be more credible if he had not previously proposed amendments to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that required a threshold of support for any referendum on the alternative vote? He supported other amendments as well, which required not just a threshold that related to those who voted, but to the total number on the electorate. Is there not some hypocrisy in the argument he makes today?
I am more than delighted to reply to the hon. Gentleman. Sparring with him always causes me great amusement. As for what he says, there is a substantial difference. The threshold amendment that I moved on the other Bill was to do with the threshold of a number of people who would participate in the election, and not what was going on in this House. It was not even related to the question of the threshold of those who voted yes, as in the Scotland Act 1998 and the amendment of
George Cunningham, the then Member for Finsbury and Islington, so there is a significant difference. I am talking about the trust that is given to us in this House and the manner in which we discharge it.
The coalition originally proposed 55%, but that was so manifestly absurd that the coalition agreement was then torn up and the figure was replaced with two thirds. If not 55%, why two thirds? The Scottish Parliament-I am using this analogy because it has already been raised, but I think that it is completely irrelevant-does not form Her Majesty's Government. Decisions in time of war, a Finance Bill or any of the other great levers of power are determined, and will continue to be determined, by the United Kingdom Parliament. One such great exercise of power at a most important time was the confidence motion of 10 May 1940, which was passed, as it happened, by the Government, and it led to the demise of Neville Chamberlain's Government, because everyone knew he had to go. I do not regard the Scottish parliamentary experience as relevant. If not two thirds, why not 75%, 60% or any other number that Harry Potter's wand might conjure out of thin air?
Mr Straw: Will the hon. Gentleman speculate on what he thinks would have happened if the two-thirds rule had applied in May 1940?
Mr Cash: Absolutely. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, there was the motion of no confidence in the Callaghan Government in 1979, in which the numbers of votes were 310 against 311. The result of that vote may have been a matter of satisfaction for the Conservative party, but I am sure that it would not have been to others. However, if the two-thirds rule had been in operation, there would not have been a change in Government and that would have been a disaster for the country.
Mr Harper: I am listening very carefully to my hon. Friend. I think that he is confusing the two different processes in the Bill. There is provision for having an early election if the Government lose a vote of no confidence. That is by a simple majority, as now, and it is not changed. The other provision is an extra power for the House of Commons, which it does not have today, for two thirds of MPs to vote for an early election. We are not in any way, changing the ability of a Government to be held to account by having to have a simple majority.
Mr Cash: It is only because I have not completed my remarks that my hon. Friend's intervention seems understandable. I do not dispute the fact that a vote of confidence by a majority of one would apply in the circumstances described in the clause, but-this is the other side of that equation-we then get into the question of the 14 days and the shenanigans that would follow with all the Whips and other people manoeuvring around to guarantee that the vote of confidence would be secured. We go back to my main point: it is the power of patronage of the Whips and the determined and ruthless exercise of that power that lies behind this proposal. That is my main objection to the whole thing irrespective of the fact that there is no mandate for these provisions from any political party.
Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): When we talk about the law of unintended consequences, which applies big time to the provisions of the Bill, will my hon. Friend not apply that in his mind to what is happening in Ireland at the moment? There is a constitutional crisis that requires the Prime Minister, in honour, to put an issue to the electorate for a general election. This Bill would preclude the Prime Minister from doing a similarly honourable thing in this country.
Mr Cash: My hon. Friend with his customary originality brings into play a contemporary example. Imagine a two-thirds rule being applied in respect of Mr Cowen at this moment. Be in no doubt, there would be riots in the streets of Dublin. This is an essential question about the irresponsible manner in which this power could be used to induce results that are fundamentally undemocratic.
Mr Straw: I understand the Minister's point that these provisions relate not to a motion of no confidence but to other motions for an early Dissolution. Given, too, the poor definitions of a motion of no confidence, we could anticipate a situation in which a Government who wish to cling to power, even though they lack a simple majority, could dodge and weave-because they determine the business of the House-for quite a period and ensure that the motion that went before the House was tabled under clause 2(1)(c) requiring a two-thirds majority in the hope of buying themselves a little time. If this provision were not in the Bill, the choice between going to the end of the period and having an early election would be much more stark.
Mr Cash: The right hon. Gentleman demonstrates why many people thought that he was one of the foremost leaders of the House of Commons. He understands the mechanics that lie behind such questions. Precisely what he has just said could easily happen. Indeed, many other things are likely to be conjured out of thin air by the wave of a magic wand of the kind that only Harry Potter seems able to use.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I cannot understand how Ministers can argue that the Bill takes power away from the Prime Minister and gives it to the House of Commons. In 1979, the intention of the provision would have been to prevent the House causing a general election. The Prime Minister would have been in the driving seat, with 14 days to cook up some kind of new deal to stay in power. How is that taking power away from the Prime Minister?
Mr Cash: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is such a shame that more people are not here to hear some of the criticisms that are being made of the Bill. We are not criticising it because we want to be difficult or because we are the awkward squad; we are criticising it because it is a profound constitutional issue. The provision is intended to be permanent, not a will-o'-the-wisp measure that will last a few months, and it will induce permanent constitutional change-it is a constitutional revolution, but a silent one, as I said.
A majority of one is at least understandable and can be calculated. I referred to the German example. Their measure operates on the basis of those in the House itself when the vote is taken, which raises a series of
questions about the manner in which the Government's proposals would operate. If we have a provision that is based on a fixed number of seats, it will not matter at all whether people turn up. Why bother with a Parliament in those circumstances? What would be the point if it were simply a question of the number of seats? Who occupies them, what they think about things or whether they have a view to express would not matter. That is an outrageous proposition, and I cannot believe that my hon. Friend the Minister is prepared to subscribe to such arrant rubbish. The reference in the Bill to the number of seats carries an analogy to the Rump Parliament to extremes.
The proposal is based not on any constitutional principle but the expediency of propping up, if necessary, the "temporary alliance", which is how the "Oxford English Dictionary" describes a coalition. The measure, for all I know, may run foul of the internal contradictions of putting two parties together that, in certain but not all respects, have entirely contrary views on matters of fundamental constitutional and political importance, such as the alternative vote, which a number of my hon. Friends and I voted against. We are Conservative, and we believe that the alternative vote is the wrong way to go. We believe in first past the post and in a simple majority, because they account for the individual conscience of hon. Members, and not merely the number of seats. Dare I even mention the European question, because that is also part and parcel of the shift in the fundamental balance of power away from this House?
The coalition agreement illustrates that point. At the heart of that arrangement, there are some destructive and some constructive proposals, and some are unworkable. For example, under the agreement, Liberal Democrats have a right or duty to abstain on important matters. The 55% rule proposal was abandoned not only because of its absurdity, but because of opposition to it. The reason for the two-thirds rule is that it will be easier for the Whips to fulfil their masters' wishes. Their power would be imperilled if a motion were conditional merely on a majority of one. That is the crunch.
The principle of the majority of one proves my point, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) indicated in an intervention. I responded to him by referring to the 1979 Division, when there was a majority of one. I find no merit whatever in moving away from the virtues of a simple majority, although I doubt that the Leader of the Opposition, who signed amendment 4, would be so firmly enthusiastic for Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979. However, I repeat that I have not tabled that amendment for the sake of the wishes of the Opposition. I simply believe that we adhere to the simple majority.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the 1979 example twice now. As I said, the Bill would not change the situation when there is a motion of no confidence in any way. If that position happened now- [ Interruption. ] If the Government lost a Division on such a motion by one vote, the situation would be the same, but the 14 days for the formation of a Government makes things different. Amendment 4, by removing the two thirds majority rule, would effectively mean that anyone who controls a majority in the House can have an election at will-it would effectively give back to the Prime Minister
the power to dissolve the House whenever he chooses to do so in a perfectly open way. If my hon. Friend is happy with that, that is fine, but that is not our proposal.
Mr Cash: I understand to a degree where my hon. Friend is coming from, but I am afraid that I am not attacking that constitutional position. I do not believe it necessary to take the power to dissolve from the Prime Minister-that power is based, as it were, on his democratic mandate-and give it to the Whips to engage in their shenanigans in the 14 days following a no confidence motion, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said.
Mr Harper: Will my hon. Friend make that clear? Is he saying that the intention of amendment 4 is to ensure that the Prime Minister retains the power to seek a Dissolution? I ask that because Opposition Members say that they are in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, albeit there is a debate over whether the term should be four or five years. My contention is that the Opposition's support for amendment 4 effectively drives a coach and horses through their support for fixed-term Parliaments, because it would give the power to dissolve directly back to the Prime Minister.
Mr Cash: The Opposition's thinking is not a matter for me. I happen to believe that our present constitutional arrangement should be sustained. It gives me no pleasure to know that the Opposition will vote with me on amendment 4. Their reasoning does not matter; what matters is the constitutional principle that I am advancing.
Mr Straw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. May I illustrate the point that he and I have made in answer to the Minister's perfectly reasonable point? At first blush, it appears that the provisions of clause 2(1)(c) strengthen the role of the House against the Prime Minister. However, I remember what happened in 1979. I was a candidate at the 1979 election, so I was no longer working for the Government, but I was in very close touch with people for whom I had worked for three and a half years and knew a lot about what was happening. There was a crisis over the outcome of the Scottish Assembly referendum, and the Commons needed an occasion on which it could give vent to that feeling, because the various smaller parties had to have their positions put on the record. Had there been a provision in legislation for an early Dissolution by two-thirds majority, the Government of the day-
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Interventions must be shorter. I understand that the point has to be made, but I would be grateful if we could get to it quickly.
Mr Straw: In that situation, the Government of the day would have worked with the smaller parties and said, "You can have your shout on the two-thirds majority, and in return, we'll give a bit of extra cash to Northern Ireland," and so on. That would have happened. Therefore, the motion of no confidence would probably never have been tabled, and even if it had been, it probably would have been lost.
Mr Cash: I understand that point, and the right hon. Gentleman describes a sort of invitation to pork barrel politics.
Mr Cash: The Minister is so determined to speak again that I am happy to give way to him.
Mr Harper: I am simply participating in the debate. I cannot agree with the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) on his characterisation of the 1979 situation. The motion in March 1979 was not about giving vent to anything; it was very clearly about whether the House had confidence in Her Majesty's Government. I assume that everyone who voted for it had a clear idea what would happen if it were carried. It was, and there were consequences. It states:
"That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government",
so I cannot believe that anyone was confused about what they were doing.
Mr Cash: I will now move on to the very question that is being discussed, which is motions of no confidence and what they really mean. There are various permutations, which are well described in the Library note, but the issue for me is basically this. In my belief-and according to the House's tradition and its conventions, which are now to be overtaken by statute-a majority of one should remain. However, in that 14-day period, with shenanigans worthy of Lord Voldemort and the servants of the Dark Lord, an attempt would be made to keep in power a Government who had lost the confidence of the House of Commons-that is, the representatives of the electorate. That attempt would keep the Government on their feet, while the public would be left watching the spectacle of streams of members of the Cabinet and prospective members of the Cabinet from the Opposition parties striding up and down Whitehall, in and out of offices, all under the baleful influence of the Cabinet Secretary, as they tried to hatch yet another coalition agreement, no doubt based on very different principles from those for which the electorate had voted, in accordance with the parties' respective manifestos or-dare I use the words?-their promises.
As to the question of what confidence motions actually are, they are various. In 1945 it was Churchill versus Attlee, and the Government won. Then there was Attlee against Churchill in 1952, and Gaitskell against Eden in 1956, when the Government won again. There was also Wilson against Heath in 1972, on the European Communities Act, when there was thought to be quite a lot of manoeuvring on the question of whether there had been a free vote or not. I will not go down that route now, but examples of where the Government have lost confidence motions include the Liberal Government of 1895, the Baldwin minority Conservative Government -note: minority Conservative Government-in 1924, the MacDonald Government in 1924, when there was again a Dissolution, and, of course, the famous Callaghan defeat by Thatcher, by 311 votes to 310.
Mr Shepherd: I am getting increasingly impatient in one sense, but on the distinction between what is a confidence motion and what is not, I put this proposition to the Committee. If the Government lose the Budget, that is it. My understanding of our constitution is that that would be the end of the Government.
Chris Bryant indicated dissent .
Mr Shepherd: Well, Governments have resigned on the loss of such votes. Therefore, what constitutes a motion that arrives at that result? What my hon. Friend has been quoting were dates, not motions.
Mr Cash: It is very rare that I say this, but I do not agree with my hon. Friend about that, because although those are dates, they are also about matters of huge political significance to the country at the time.
Mr Shepherd: That applies to the Budget.
Mr Cash: Indeed, and my hon. Friend is right on that point, because it is not just about the business; in my judgment, it is about the sense of feeling in the country and the outrage in the House about the policies that are being pursued.
Mr Cash: I will give way to my hon. Friend for the last time.
Mr Jenkin: It is worth reminding the Committee that the words on the Order Paper in May 1940 were "That this House do now adjourn".
Mr Cash: Indeed, but that was about the sense of outrage over what had been done. That could apply to a Budget, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) said, or to any other situation. It could have applied to Suez or, for example, the Iraq war. For all those reasons, the confidence motion, in whatever terms it is expressed, is just that: do those voting in the House of Commons at the time, by a majority of one, have a sufficient degree of confidence in the behaviour and policies of the Government?
Mr Shepherd: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's tolerance in giving way again, but the outcome of the vote in 1940 was the resignation of the Prime Minister, not the Government as a whole. Although the Government went with him, they reformed themselves, so what happened was not an electoral matter; it was the outcome of a confidence motion in the individual who headed the Government.
Mr Cash: I agree with my hon. Friend on that, but there was also the sense of outrage that was being expressed. As that occasion has been raised three times already, let me mention in passing that, as it happens, it took place on the day that I was born, but there we are.
What does such innovation say about the coalition? It certainly demonstrates its determination to stack the cards firmly in favour of the coalition and the Whips. There may well be one third whom the coalition cannot take for granted or persuade, but I fear that that attitude is taking power away from Parliament-which, after all, is made up of the representatives of the people-and not giving it back. If the same principle were followed for any other motion, Parliament would simply not be able to carry out its business. I fear that what is proposed is not modernising, but is a reactionary measure. It is not progress, but a step backwards, along the primrose path, undermining the constitutional principles that have governed our conventions and been tested over many centuries. The proposal has been conjured out of
thin air, for the ruthless purpose of maintaining power irrespective of the consequences. In my opinion, it is a great shame that it has been put forward on the proposition that-as was said in the general election and at the conference that took place recently-we are supposed to be "Working together in the national interest". I fear that on this Bill, on this matter, we are working together against the national interest.
Mr George Howarth: Long before anybody else on the Opposition Benches supported amendment 4, standing in the name of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), I added my name to it. I listened carefully to what he said. He used the terms "Whips" and "patronage" to describe what he believes lies behind the provisions in clause 2, which I think is just a shorthand way of saying that we are talking about monolithic party structures that, generally speaking, follow whoever happens to be leading at any given time, and the instruments of that are the Whips and patronage.
I am a party political creature. I would not be in this House under any title other than that of "Labour Member of Parliament". However, at the same time, I believe that we are sent here to exercise our judgment, particularly on issues such as that we are discussing, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, have not really been tested before the electorate. Fixed-term Parliaments and the alternative vote system were in our manifesto. However, the provisions in clause 2 that he has discussed were in nobody's manifesto, so I feel in no way obliged to support them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) may correct me on this, but those who follow history, such as the hon. Gentleman, will know that it was quite common in the early to mid-19th century for Governments to change and for votes of no confidence to be taken. In fact, quite often the country would go for several weeks without an effective Government in place. However, the difference then was that party political labels were almost meaningless: the Liberal party did not exist in the form that we later came to know, while the Conservative party was a collection of factions.
In those days, it was possible for Governments to change their leadership and even the coalition that supported that leadership without there necessarily being a general election. We do not live in such circumstances now, and it is important to be mindful of the arrangements that we put in place for the Dissolution of Parliament or any other means by which to change a Government in mid-term.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): In reality, if a Prime Minister commands a majority in the House of Commons, instead of seeking to obtain a two-thirds majority in the House, will they not simply repeal or amend the Bill?
Mr Howarth: My hon. Friend makes a typically good and well thought through point. I do not want to make a long speech, but the simple point-this is why I support the hon. Member for Stone-is that if the House decides by a simple majority that it has lost confidence in the Government of the day, that should be enough.
We invoke what people outside think, but they would be astonished if they thought that the Members of Parliament, regardless of party labels, whom they send to the House to represent them were able to pass a vote of no confidence in the Government, but not by what has been called a sufficient super-majority to make any difference. We would seem not to have been given additional powers, as the Minister seems to argue, but to be impotent. That cannot be good for Parliament, for politicians and certainly not for any of us as individual Members of Parliament. I am pleased to support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Stone and I hope hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will support it in the Lobby if there is a Division.
Chris Bryant: It is a delight to see the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) back in her seat. She introduced a new concept of votes of no consequence. On the Opposition Benches, it often feels as though every vote is one of no consequence, but we hope that with more support in the coming days, we will manage to turn that around.
The hon. Lady said one important thing- [ Interruption. ] She has doubtless said many important things, as the Minister rightly reminds me. In particular, she said that she disagrees with the amendment she tabled, which was interesting. She also referred to the fact that her Committee had had virtually no time to do what she called pre-legislative scrutiny. In fact, I suggest that a far more sensible procedure for engaging in all legislation, and particularly that on constitutional reform, is to publish the Bill in draft, send it to a Joint Committee of both Houses and provide an opportunity for evidence to be taken, and at the end of that process it can be brought to the House. That is not what has happened in this case. She and others referred to the coalition as something of a matrimony, but the Book of Common Prayer states that holy matrimony should not be enterprised or entered into
"unadvisedly, lightly, wantonly or to satisfy...carnal lusts."
My fear is that this part of the Bill has been entered into unadvisedly, wantonly and to satisfy the lusts of the coalition partners who want to ensure that they remain in power for as long as possible.
The process has been wrong, and I say gently to the Minister that in our debates last week he referred at the last minute to consultation that he was going to engage in with the devolved Administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I understand that he has written to one Member of the House about that, but he has not written to me, and he has not written to any other hon. Members who were involved in the Committee stage, so I hope that he will take this opportunity to assure us that he will write to us immediately.
Mr Harper: Frankly, the point of order that the hon. Gentleman raised last week was nonsense. He did not give me notice of it, so I was unable to respond. I listened carefully to last week's debate and responded to it. I then made an announcement of Government policy in this House at the Dispatch Box, which I thought was the usual way of conducting business.
The following day, I wrote to the leaders of parties in each of the devolved Assemblies, as I said I would. I did not put anything in those letters that I had not announced
in the debate. I also wrote to the shadow Justice Secretary, who leads on political and constitutional reform for the Opposition, to keep him properly informed. I placed copies of all those letters in the Library.
The Chairman: Order. We should not be rehashing previous points of order. We should be dealing with the amendment. I am sure that Mr Bryant wishes to do so.
Chris Bryant: Yes, indeed. This is just about the process and the fact that it has been the convention in every Committee stage in which I have been involved for Ministers to write to all members of the Committee, and, when the Committee is sitting on the Floor of the House, to all those who have taken part in the debate.
My point is that clause 2 has no electoral mandate. Clause 1 has some degree of mandate, in that we had proposed in our manifesto that there should be fixed-term Parliaments, and the Liberal Democrats had made a similar proposal. I do not believe that there is a mandate for a five-year fixed-term Parliament, as both political parties had previously said that they were in favour of four-year fixed-term Parliaments. Clause 2 has absolutely no mandate from the electorate. Indeed, the proposals in it run directly counter to those in the Conservative manifesto, and to what the Prime Minister said as Leader of the Opposition in relation to the reform of the power of Dissolution. He said that he would introduce legislation to ensure that, should there be a change of Prime Minister as a result of the party in power changing its leader, there would be a general election within six months, but that is not the proposal that we have before us today.
Chris Bryant: Of course I will give way to the lion of the right, as I believe he is now known.
Mr Jenkin: Lion, maybe. I should like to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the parliamentary Conservative party gave no mandate to the leadership of our party for a fixed-term arrangement of any description. The parliamentary party was consulted about whether there should be a coalition, and whether there should be a commitment to a referendum on the alternative vote, but the question of a fixed-term Parliament was never mentioned. Nobody knew anything about it until it appeared in the coalition agreement.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is true not only of his party but of the Liberal Democrats, who said that they were in favour of a fixed-term Parliament although there was no reference in their election material or manifesto, or in any of the speeches made by the now Deputy Prime Minister, to any provisions for determining when an election might be held or for introducing a super-majority. When their lordships consider this legislation, it is important that they bear in mind the fact that the conventions relating to matters that are adumbrated in a general election manifesto simply do not apply in this case. There is absolutely no electoral mandate for this provision.
The aetiology of clause 2 is pretty straightforward. It comes from the coalition agreement. I know that the hon. Member for Epping Forest is keen, for her own reasons of propriety, to stick to voting for proposals that are in the coalition agreement. However, she has complete freedom in relation to today's amendments, because these provisions are not mentioned in the agreement. It states:
"We will establish five-year fixed-term Parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of Commons stating that the next general election will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, we will legislate to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55% or more of the House votes in favour."
I completely agree with the articles that were then written by several Members, the most impressive of which was probably that by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and published in The Daily Telegraph. In it, he stated:
"The requirement for a 55 per cent majority to dissolve parliament, and thereby dismiss a government, dramatically reduces the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account."
If that was true of a 55% requirement, it is even more true of a 67% requirement. Moreover, that requirement would involve 67% of not only those who voted but of all the seats in the House, even those that were vacant at the time and also, presumably, those of the Deputy Speakers and the Speaker, who would presumably not be allowed to vote. Those seats would therefore automatically be included with those who had voted against holding an early general election.
There is absolutely no mandate for the provisions in clause 2. I believe that it will entrench the powers of the Executive, rather than releasing their grip on Parliament. An important point has been made by several hon. Members, not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Home Secretary-I could list all his jobs as he has held almost every job in the Government apart from Prime Minister; perhaps that will come one day. They pointed out that the clause introduces a new super-majority, which is alien to the processes of this House. There has never been a super-majority provision. The provision is introduced by statute rather than through the Standing Orders, so again it is the Executive forcing their will on the House rather than the House taking this forward.
Mr MacNeil: Philosophically, this change has come about because of the practice of Prime Ministers choosing to go to the country at a moment that suits them and their political party rather than the country or anybody else. Margaret Thatcher did this and plenty of other Prime Ministers have done it. How does the hon. Gentleman square the circle of getting away from that rotten practice and moving towards a fairer and more equitable practice?
The most important element of the Bill as a whole is the introduction of a fixed term. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I would prefer a four-year period, but it is five years in the Bill. The presumption should be in favour of a fixed term. It is absolutely right that the Prime Minister should no longer have the power to dissolve Parliament and that the Dissolution should rest solely with Parliament rather than with the Prime Minister. To achieve such a handing over of power, we also have to change the prerogative power to
prorogue Parliament. Otherwise, it would be perfectly simple for a Prime Minister who wanted to ensure an early general election-for whatever set of reasons-to bypass the two thirds majority required in subsection (1), to engineer a vote of no confidence and then to prorogue Parliament immediately so that no vote of confidence in another Government could be called.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the workings of this place, whereby a Prime Minister could simply use his Whips to whip his party and secure a simple majority. How is that circle to be squared? We could say that in one sense Parliament has the power, but in another sense it does not if the Prime Minister can use his Whips to dragoon his parliamentary party into having an election. [Interruption.]
Chris Bryant: The Deputy Leader of the House is chuntering away. I think he is trying to talk to you, Mr Hoyle, because he keeps on saying that I am out of order and that I am not speaking to the right part of the clause. Perhaps he could have his conversation with you privately.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) is absolutely right in one sense. We have to achieve a balancing act. This House needs to exert its power through its majority to hold the Government to account and, if necessary, to sack the Government. In most circumstances, that has happened when a political party has splintered or when a leader of a party has proved unable to control his or her troops-his, in most cases-through the Division Lobbies. We have seen that happen with the Irish Home Rule Bill and with the Budget at different times, leading to a collapse of confidence in the Government on the Government side and the subsequent fall of that Government. I think that we should still stick with that process.
In case hon. Members feel that in recent times motions of no confidence-and particularly successful motions of no confidence-have been pretty rare, it is worth pointing out that we should look at a longer period of history than just the last few years if we are to set out constitutional change that will stand the test of time. We have no way of knowing what will happen to the political parties, as presently constituted, in five, 10, 15 or 20 years' time.
Looking back over the last 150 or so years, we find that no confidence motions have been used quite regularly and have frequently led to the collapse of Governments. Lord North's Government, for example, fell in 1782. There was also a sustained period in which no confidence motions were common from 1885 onwards; indeed, there were two such motions in 1886, when first Lord Salisbury's Government and then Gladstone's Government fell again on the issue of Irish home rule, which divided the Liberal party-
The Chairman: Order. I am sure that the Committee, like me, welcomes the history lesson, but we must stick to the amendments, from which we are drifting away. The hon. Gentleman may feel that he is in order, but he is not. I would like him to come back to order, and it would also be helpful if he faced the Chair.
I am grateful, Mr Hoyle. I will address myself to you more directly. The point I am trying to make is that clause 2 deals with motions of no confidence
and early elections and these have been a sustained part of what we have put up with. I am not sure whether you are going to allow a clause 2 stand part debate later. I note that you are saying no, but I hope it will be possible to allow a degree of latitude so that we can consider all the elements of the clause.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) observed that Governments had fallen by virtue of their Budgets' being opposed. One of my arguments is that the whole concept of a no confidence motion is excluded from the Bill. It is not clear what counts as a no confidence motion; nor is it clear, in the part of the Bill that we are currently considering, what counts as a motion calling for an early general election.
Mr Shepherd: Might that lack of clarity be a mark of the wisdom of past generations? They knew when it had happened that a Government were not sustainable, and they knew when it had not happened. The mood of the House in relation to that of the country was an open question.
Chris Bryant: I am not sure that that is true. It depended on the Crown-that is, the Government or Executive-retaining the power to dissolve Parliament. I do not think that a measure that was considered to be a motion of no confidence in 1866-namely,
"to leave out the words 'clear yearly' and put 'rateable' instead thereof"-
would be considered to be one today, and I therefore think that it would be inappropriate for that power to remain.
The Chairman: Order. The next set of amendments deals with no confidence motions. I think that the hon. Gentleman is in danger of jumping ahead, and I am sure that he does not want to do that.
Grahame M. Morris: I am concerned less about hon. Members' definition of a confidence issue than about whether that definition would be acceptable to the court if a certificate were challenged. However, I accept that that is the subject of a later clause.
Chris Bryant: We will undoubtedly discuss the Speaker's certificate when we deal with later amendments.
The Government have relied for their provision on calling a general election on the fact that there are similar provisions in the Scotland Act 1998. It is true that that Act provides for an early general election when, and only when, there is a super-majority among those voting. However, as I tried to explain to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, the two measures are completely different. The presumption in the Scotland Act was that it would be virtually impossible for any one political party ever to have a majority in the Scottish Parliament. Incidentally, the Act also contains a provision that is entirely different from the provision in clause 1: it provides that the date of the next general election, if there is one in Scotland, will not be changed at all.
Moreover, the provisions in the Scotland Act mean that if there is no First Minister-which is the equivalent of no one being able to gain a motion of confidence on a simple majority-a general election must follow in
any event. That, in my view, clearly invalidates the super-majority process, which I think will be used very rarely in the Scottish Parliament.
The problem with the provision in clause 2 relating to a super-majority is that either it is profoundly dangerous because it removes Parliament's power to hold the Government to account, and to be able to sack the Government or the Prime Minister, or it is otiose, because a Prime Minister who wanted to ensure an early general election at a time of his or her own choosing would simply engineer a motion of no confidence or, for that matter-as there is no determinant for what counts as a motion of no confidence-table a motion of confidence in which the Government then chose not to vote. The Opposition would almost certainly vote against the motion of confidence, and an early general election would follow.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Scotland. An election called by the Scottish Parliament during the period of that Parliament would not necessarily reset the clock. An election would still take place, say, a year or two years later. I understand that here the clock would be reset. There is clearly an incentive to go to the country at different points which does not exist in Scotland.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for echoing a point that I made three minutes ago. I still agree with the point that I made three minutes ago, and I now agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is great. We are gathering support in the debate, which is very exciting. I hope that he will support the same amendments as me.
My problem with amendment 33 is that it places all the power in the hands of the party leaders. That is a profound problem, as I hope we are moving into a period when Parliament finds more opportunities to take its destiny into its own hands. I hope various measures that have already been introduced will help in that, and will revitalise the role of Back Benchers and therefore make it possible for not everything to be decided by the party leaders. That is an important principle, and it is why we do not support the amendment-although I realise that the hon. Member for Epping Forest will not press it to a Division in any case.
Mrs Laing: I simply want to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman; he makes a very good point.
Chris Bryant: I wonder whether I can carry the hon. Lady a little further into even greater acts of agreement. Bearing in mind the stricture she has set herself of not opposing anything that is in the coalition agreement, she should feel free to support us in respect of later amendments on the two-thirds majority, unless she has found some other reason not to do so.
We have tabled one amendment to clause 2: amendment 21. The clause provides for the calling of an early general election, but it does not specify what "early" means in that context. It does not state whether the motion that could be moved in the House would say, for instance, "This House calls for a general election in the autumn of next year," and if so whether that means the general election would be held next autumn
or prior to that, as current legislation still allows for the precise date of a general election to be set by royal proclamation, which would obviously be on the basis of advice from the Privy Council, and therefore would in practice come from the Prime Minister.
Therefore, the Bill as currently drafted lacks clarity in this respect. That is why we have suggested that the clause should refer to an "immediate" rather than an "early" general election. That fits with amendments we have tabled to other provisions saying the power to determine the precise date of the general election should not be left to the Prime Minister, and that instead the date should be set.
Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Once the Speaker's certificate has been certified or provided, the general election should be held on a specified date as provided for in legislation, rather than one decided elsewhere.
Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman define precisely what he means by "immediate" in this context?
Chris Bryant: Again, the hon. Gentleman is catching up with me; I explained that in my last sentence, but he had already sought to intervene. What I was trying to say was that under amendments we have tabled to other parts of the Bill, the election would take place on the sixth Thursday after the day on which the Speaker had issued the certificate, whereas the clause states that the general election will be held on the date provided for by royal proclamation-I presume under the Great Seal-as advised by the Privy Council, and therefore, effectively, determined by the Prime Minister. I presume those measures have been put in place so as to stick with the current timetable for general elections, which is six days after Dissolution for the close of nominations and 11 days after that for the day of poll, but perhaps the Minister will confirm whether that is the case. If we are putting other provisions on to the statute book, there is no reason why we should not be able to provide in statute the precise day on which the general election would take place. That is my definition of "immediate".
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) was right in saying that he did not consult the Opposition in tabling his amendment. I have to confess that he got to the Table Office about 20 minutes before we did, so I am afraid that on this occasion we have had to row in behind him. Whereas we disagree on many issues, on this issue we simply agree. Either the provision of a super-majority for the calling of an early general election is dangerous or, like Z, it is the unnecessary letter-it is otiose and is not necessary in legislation. The hon. Gentleman's amendment would remove the super-majority. It would return us almost exactly to the provisions of the South African constitution and allow for an early election on the basis of a simple majority, even though South Africa has fixed-term Parliaments, which have been pretty much adhered to since 1994.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend think that such arrangements make things more transparent to the public? Super-majorities are very opaque and are not understandable in these matters, whereas what he is arguing for is much more transparent and understandable, and much better.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I understand that for there to be a super-majority in this Parliament, 434 votes in favour would be required, although that is before the Bill currently before the other place, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, comes into operation in an unamended form. We are talking about 434 out of the 650 seats at the moment. As I have said, the arrangement leaves some things completely uncertain; I presume that the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers would not be allowed to vote.
That brings us to another interesting point, which is that, as you will know, Mr Hoyle, under the Standing Orders and the custom of this House, the Speaker and the Chair do not vote unless there is an equality of votes. That is different from the arrangement in the other House, where the Speaker or the Chair of the Committee is able to vote twice. The commonly accepted provision, as stated in "Erskine May", has then been as follows for the Speaker:
"it is usual for him, when practicable, to vote in such a manner as not to make the decision of the House final".
In a vote such as I am describing, there would not have been equality of votes, but if one side had got to 433 seats, would the Speaker be allowed to vote or not? This is slightly complicated when there are 650 seats, but if the number is reduced to 600, as suggested in the Government's proposals in the other Bill, 400 seats would be the mark that we would have to reach. If the vote is on a knife-edge, would the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, or the Chair of the Committee, be allowed to vote on such a measure? Importantly, this is not just about the Speaker. If the vote were on a Budget and if we took the advice of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills that in some situations a Budget decision or a financial decision would be considered a motion of no confidence, the provision would relate not to the Speaker, but to the Chairman of Ways and Means or one of the other Committee Chairmen, who would be chairing.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) said, many difficult elements are involved in operating a super-majority. The biggest problem arises where the Government or the Opposition table a motion seeking to get to that figure and an early general election, and obtain more than half the seats in the House but do not reach the two-thirds majority. In what state would that leave the Government? Would a motion of no confidence immediately have to be tabled for us then to be able to proceed to the other measures? Or would that original motion, by its very nature, have been considered a motion of no confidence, because the Government declared it to be a matter on which winning the vote was an issue of confidence? Again, this provision is either a dangerous or entirely unnecessary element.
Mr Chope: Does the hon. Gentleman accept, therefore, that amendment 4 is the most important in this group? If so, will he argue in support of having a vote on it, if my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) withdraws amendment 33?
Chris Bryant: I am enthusiastically in favour of having a vote on amendment 4, because it goes to the nub of the issue; in large measure, it deals with the only issue of significance in this group of amendments.
Mr Cash: In case there were any doubt about it, may I tell the Committee that I shall certainly be putting amendment 4 to the vote?
Chris Bryant: In case there were any doubt about it, I shall join the hon. Gentleman in the Division Lobby unless the Whips manage to get to him, which is very unlikely. They rarely manage to get to him-he is an undiscovered country beyond whose bourn no Whip has ever returned, since we are doing "Hamlet" this afternoon.
The Chairman: Order. It may help the hon. Gentleman to know that the Chair will decide on which amendments the Committee may vote.
Chris Bryant: Of course, but I will not look for you to join us in the Division Lobby, Mr Hoyle.
The Government might say in their charming, elegant and smooth way that this is a hypothetical situation because the honest truth is that in all normal circumstances no Government and no Prime Minister would ever choose to circumvent the power of the House on the two thirds majority that would be needed to call an early general election by enforcing a motion of no confidence. I echo the words of the Clerk of the House in a memorandum on the Bill to the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform: there may be little risk of an accident if one drives up the motorway on the wrong side of the road at 4 o'clock in the morning, but the impact if there were an accident is likely to be very serious, and so although the risk of a dispute about a vote to dissolve Parliament being argued out in the courts might be small if it were to happen, its impact politically and constitutionally would be very great. That is why I say to the Government that although I understand how they have ended up with this legislation-it is not that I detest every element of it, although I dislike the process and I dislike the use of the period of five years instead of four and so on-and although I think there are elements of the clause that are right and proper, I think that they have not thought through the full possible consequences of the legislation.
I can easily foresee a time when a Prime Minister who is desperate to have a general election because of war, an immense financial collapse or something else that he thought was of absolute centrality to the Government that he-
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Or she.
Chris Bryant: Or she. I thought I just heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) speaking in my ear.
If that Prime Minister felt that it was essential in the interests of the nation that there should be an early general election, the Government would be prepared to bypass and use every trick in the book to secure an early election. They might well have this Bill in their back pocket as a means of achieving that. So although this Government were supposedly trying to release the grip of the Executive, they would have enhanced it.
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