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The hon. Member for North East Somerset praised the House of Lords and the job of work it is doing at the moment down the other end of the building, where I hope his father will be stoutly defending not the Government but the cause of freedom and democracy-I am sure he will be. I wish to sound a slight note of caution to the hon. Gentleman. I have long supported an elected second Chamber, but over the past few years the Second Chamber has become far more partisan, because a higher proportion of its Members now take a party Whip. That applies in all parts of that House. [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that Labour Members do, but what I said is true of all political parties in the House of Lords. I hope that there will be an elected second Chamber, and if there is the relationship between the Chambers
will have to be written down in statute. Otherwise, either there will be permanent gridlock or, even more dangerously, we will face the problem of the Government having absolutely no check on them because they will enjoy a majority in this House and down the other end of the building. I can think of no other system in the world containing no such check. I say to the hon. Member for North East Somerset that although one praises the House of Lords, where Labour and Cross-Bench peers are doing a good job of scrutiny, some dangers are coming down the road.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset also relied on the Salisbury convention, whereby the Lords would not stand in the way of something adumbrated in a general election manifesto on which a Government were elected. In the previous Parliament the Liberal Democrats said that they believed that the Salisbury convention no longer held. I suspect that a convention written in a gentlemen's club and redrafted several times during the 20th century probably will not stand the test of time and we will need something rather more secure for our constitutional settlement.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Bill extends Parliament's life beyond the five-year period that, thus far, has been allowed; clause 1 allows the Prime Minister to extend or shorten the five-year fixed term by two months, although that is reliant on motions in this House and in the second Chamber. That is one of the many reasons we have argued that the Bill will lead to fewer general elections. That is so particularly because the Bill provides for a five-year term, rather than a four-year term, as the hon. Member for Stone said, but also because of the special provision allowing for the extra extension of two months. We believe that that is a problem and that the voters of this country probably want us not to have the longest fixed-term Parliaments in the world. If we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, voters would probably prefer us to adopt the policy of the Liberal Democrats before the general election and the policy that Labour has pursued ever since the Plant commission, when we were mired deep in opposition many years ago, which is for four-year fixed-term Parliaments. Unfortunately, that is not available to us in the Bill.
"If any Public Bill (other than a Money Bill or a Bill containing any provision to extend the maximum duration of Parliament beyond five years) is passed by the House of Commons"
and it goes on to delineate the provisions, as amended by the later Parliament Act, that allow the Speaker to move straight to Royal Assent, often at Prorogation-we will come on to Prorogation later-without having to pass through the House of Lords, if the House of Lords has refused to co-operate. There is therefore already sufficient power to ensure that Parliament cannot be extended, which is the key point. One thing that successive generations have tried to reinforce is the need for frequent elections. The Triennial Acts and the various different versions that that legislation has gone through, from three years to seven years, the campaigns by the Chartists for annual elections and the return to a proposal for five years have all been centred on the belief that there
should be sufficient and regular elections for the Government to enjoy a mandate and for the people to have their voice.
Mr Cash: I have been increasingly impressed over the months by the manner in which the hon. Gentleman has tackled these constitutional questions. He is putting the House in a far better position by the manner in which he explains many of his points. Having got over that bit of flattery, I point out that it might have been a good idea if, at this point in his speech-perhaps he is coming on to it-he had referred to the comments of the Clerk of the Parliaments. The Bill will go to the House of Lords, as I have pointed out, and we do not quite know what their lordships will make of it. Not only did the Constitution Committee come to a certain conclusion on the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has raised, but so did the Clerk of the Parliaments. He said:
"It is...clear that the [Fixed-term Parliaments] Bill does contain provision to extend the maximum duration of a Parliament beyond five years, and that it cannot, therefore, be passed under the Parliament Acts procedure unless, before it leaves the Commons, the [relevant] provisions...are amended."
Professors Bradley and Oliver agreed. That is an important point. Forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for making rather a long intervention, but I wanted to get it on the record that this is not just a minor matter but something on which the House of Lords appears largely to have made up its mind.
Chris Bryant: I am always a bit reluctant to presume what the House of Lords' final view might be, not least because three new Members of the House of Lords are being introduced every day at the moment-it is something of a moving feast down the far end of the corridor. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the Clerk of the Parliaments, and incidentally I want to pass on congratulations to Mr Beamish, who has just been appointed the new Clerk of the Parliaments. It is also true that the Clerk of this House has made it clear that there are significant concerns about clause 2, which I shall come on to when I discuss the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stone. I am also always very grateful for any oleaginous support I can get.
The point I hope to make about new clause 3, tabled by the hon. Member for North East Somerset, is that I think that there is already adequate provision in the Parliament Act to ensure that Parliament cannot be extended. His new clause would apply to the whole of clause 1, so we would not be able to amend any of the elements of it, even if they had been adumbrated in a manifesto commitment and a single party won the next general election with a majority and legislated in that way. We would not be able to use the Parliament Act even to shorten the length of a Parliament.
If we win the next general election, I hope we will-notwithstanding the fact that we will have won, in a sense, the right for a five-year fixed-term Parliament-want to reduce the number of years from five years to four. As the hon. Member for North East Somerset has shown, historical consistency across the years is a good political attribute rather than a failing.
Thomas Docherty: Does my hon. Friend agree with my assessment of the Parliament Act that the purpose of stipulating that parliamentary terms cannot be lengthened was to ensure a democratic check against the powers of the Prime Minister? Would not the hon. Member for North East Somerset's new clause, regrettably, act as a check against democracy by stopping the right of the democratic House to shorten the length of a term? That is not the spirit in which the Parliament Act was intended.
Chris Bryant: Yes, although as the hon. Member for North East Somerset said at the very beginning of his speech, all this will become rather unnecessary once we have legislated for an elected, whether fully or substantially, second Chamber. At that point, elements of the Parliament Act, or even the whole Act, will almost certainly have to be reshaped.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman's point that a Government elected on a manifesto for four years would not want to be obstructed by the House of Lords, and I doubt whether the Lords would obstruct them in those circumstances. Does he have any sympathy with the view that constitutional issues ought to have greater protection than ordinary Bills, particularly as judges have decided that there is a category of constitutional Acts? Should we decide that rather than the judiciary?
Chris Bryant: My general approach is that we should always seek to take decisions ourselves, rather than leave them to judges to take for us, because we are elected. However, the history of English common law and the way in which it has developed is such that judges have, by the precedents they have set, elaborated on that law. We have sometimes then decided to incorporate those interpretations into statute law, so there has been a constant relationship between the two. [ Interruption. ] My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) is muttering about Scottish law, but I am being very careful because I know much less about Scottish law than I do about English law, which also applies in Wales, so I am going to the edge of my knowledge and not a step further.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset is right that we will need, at some point, to put into statute law the relationship between this Chamber and an elected second Chamber, as we will want to establish that more firmly. Perhaps, as has happened in every other constitution that has been written in the world, special provision will be made for changing the constitution itself. In Germany, there has to be a vote of a certain majority in both Houses both before and after a general election. That was enforced by us in the writing of the German constitution after the second world war. In Spain, changes have been made to the constitution since the death of Franco, but the Spanish, too, can proceed only if there is a significant majority within the Cortes and the Senate. In short, my answer to the hon. Gentleman is yes.
In essence, my argument regarding new clause 3 is that it is not necessary and that it could be problematic for a new Government, because they might not be able to get their way even on a manifesto commitment that had been clearly laid down. The real danger concerns
the extension of parliamentary terms-something that has always worried people in relation to the freedoms and rights of the British people, or rather the people of the United Kingdom. That is already protected in the Parliament Act, which will stand until we revise all these measures. Parliament has been extended in the past. That happened during the second world war when extensions were agreed on an annual basis. I am not sure whether that was voted on every year, but the hon. Member for North East Somerset might know.
Let me move to the hon. Member for Stone's new clause. I note that the hon. Member for North East Somerset said that we have a choice between Scylla and Charybdis-he being Scylla and the hon. Member for Stone being Charybdis. My uncertain memory of Homer is that Odysseus chose to surrender a few sailors to Scylla rather than a whole ship to the whirlpool that was Charybdis, but I am in favour of Charybdis this afternoon.
Chris Bryant: Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I am not sure that we really have got to the edge of your knowledge; I think your knowledge is boundless, and consequently I agree with you. [Interruption.] The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, is talking about the pillars of Hercules, which is a rather fine pub I have sometimes frequented in-well, north London somewhere.
The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Stone seems quite sensible, because we believe that section 2 has a series of elements that, as the Clerk of the House has pointed out, are problematic. We think that because it has been put into statute rather than included in the Standing Orders of the House, there is a real danger that elements could be questioned in the courts, and one would then have a dramatic constitutional crisis. Consequently, we understand that, as the hon. Gentleman said, those elements are there entirely to bind together the coalition. We understand why the coalition would want to maintain that element, but we certainly do not believe that a future Government should be bound by it.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no Parliament is bound by its predecessor and no Parliament can bind its successor. However, there is one sense in which it can delay its successor, because it makes it have to re-legislate if it wants to take away a part of statute law. It seems to me that since it is clear that this piece of constitutional-
I was thinking of jiggery-pokery. Section 2 is being proceeded with not on the basis of consensus across the House, but on the basis solely of an agreement between the two coalition partners, so it would seem to us to make sense to make an allowance in the Bill that the section would die at the next general election. I note that the hon. Gentleman has crafted his new clause carefully so that it does not say 2015; it simply says that section 2 expires when the Parliament that was elected in 2010 comes to its end. At that point, whatever new Government had been elected could choose whether to
continue with the provisions or to let them lapse. If it were a Labour Government, I am pretty confident that we would want to ensure that the provisions lapsed. However, what other parties may want to do is for others to determine.
The key point is that we would not want to have to introduce primary legislation to repeal this element of the Bill. For those reasons I am keen to support the hon. Member for Stone. I do not think his new clause quite throws the whole of the ship into the whirlpool, but I think that the throwing of a few sailors into the mouths of the demon in North East Somerset would be inappropriate, and consequently we shall support new clause 5 but not new clause 3 and I very much hope that we shall be able to divide the House on this matter.
Mr Jenkin: As one of the few Members of the House that has actually sailed through the straits of Messina in a sailing boat and witnessed the whirlpool, and the rock from which the many heads of Scylla seized the sailors-
Mr Jenkin: I survived, but I have to say that it is a very disappointing whirlpool, but that is no reflection on either my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) or my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg)-whichever was representing the whirlpool or the many-headed monster. However, if this is an opportunity to put some instability under the Bill, I will certainly support new clause 5 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. I have my name on it in any case.
I would echo the sentiment that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) expressed in an interesting speech in response to new clause 3. The question of constitutional Bills is an interesting innovation introduced by Lord Justice Laws, but I would tell my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset that Lord Justice Laws was merely including in his judgments something that had been widely understood by constitutional theorists for some time, although it had never been legally expressed in such terms. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's sentiment and, indeed, with that of the hon. Member for Rhondda that Parliament should determine which of these laws is constitutional and overrides subsequent Acts of Parliament. Clearly, the European Communities Act 1972 was expressly intended to do that, as has been recognised by the courts, and the 1689 Bill of Rights does that, but Lord Phillips concluded in a recent case that the doctrine of implied repeal applies to the 1689 Act.
For that reason, as was said in Committee by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who has just left his place, this is an extremely important matter to which the House should return at a future date. I am not sure that I want the Bill to become one of those constitutional Acts, although I fully accept that the House of Lords has a role to play in preventing a tyranny of the majority-incidentally, a role that it cannot play if it becomes an elected House.
We are, in fact, moving into very difficult and choppy waters. With respect to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), I
do not believe in the so-called constitutional statutes at all. They are an invention in the first instance by Lord Justice Laws. They have a certain spurious credibility, but it does not stack up. My concern is that we will need to use a range of "notwithstanding" arrangements in relation not only to the European Union but to the so-called constitutional enactments or Bills when we want to legislate in the House. We will also need to require the judiciary to give effect to the latest Westminster enactment in that field of endeavour and to state expressly what is intended to bypass this attempt to establish a completely new regime of codified legislation. That will simply become very difficult.
Mr Jenkin: That was the purpose of my referring to Lord Phillips's recent obiter dicta, in which he implied that later Acts of Parliament can effectively repeal the parts of the 1689 Act that protect Parliament's privileges. I do not think that that is satisfactory, and Parliament needs to think clearly about how we remain in democratic control of this country's constitutional settlement.
Using legislative techniques, such as those suggested by my hon. Friend, is the direction in which we ought to move. Some people will say that means moving towards a written constitution, but that is to misunderstand our constitution. It is partly written and partly not written. The point is to determine who is in charge. Parliament should be in charge, with the necessary checks and balances between the two Houses. So I very much welcome the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset has initiated on this topic. This debate will run and run, even though we might not be able to agree or divide on his new clause.
I put my name to new clause 5, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, partly because it provides an opportunity to remind ourselves of how bad the Bill is. I am afraid that I am appalled that it was introduced in this way. I cannot recall any Government ever introducing a Bill to manipulate the constitution for their own purposes in such a nakedly self-interested way. Clause 2 is simply a fig leaf to ameliorate the problems that arise from fixed-term Parliaments.
Let us remind ourselves of the provisions of clause 2. The two-thirds provision is obviously open to manipulation-assuming that the mechanism does not drag us into disputes with the courts-because if the Government of the day tabled a motion of no confidence in themselves, it would hardly be likely that the Opposition would oppose it, so a general election would still be available at the initiative of the Executive. In a coalition arrangement, the smaller partner might decide not to take part in such a process, meaning that the motion would be opposed and, by arrangement with the Opposition, perhaps passed by only a simple majority. Under the Bill, we are therefore creating arrangements by which a junior coalition partner may switch horses halfway through a Parliament.
I believe that the Liberal Democrats wanted a fixed-term Parliament so that they could swap coalition partners halfway through the Parliament. Lo and behold, we now read in the papers that the Leader of the Opposition and the Deputy Prime Minister seem to be striking up a new friendship-perhaps that heralds the switch. Of course, I am talking hypothetically-the subject is
theoretical-but, constitutionally, the possibility exists. It is extraordinary that we are contemplating putting in place arrangements that could bring about a change of Government, Prime Minister and Administration without a general election, but that is what the Bill provides for. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) seems to be looking at me quizzically.
Chris Bryant: I am looking at the hon. Gentleman quizzically, because, under the existing arrangements, there have been many changes of Prime Minister and Administration without a general election. Although I recognise that the hon. Gentleman stood at the general election on a manifesto that said that a change of Prime Minister should be followed by a general election within six months, I note that he has not tabled an amendment that would have that effect.
Mr Jenkin: Privately, I can confide to the House that I always thought that that proposition was a bit daft-it seemed like ingratiation. Whenever the ruling party changes its leader, meaning that there is a change of Prime Minister, the Opposition always cough and splutter loudly, and express the view that, in all justice, there should be a general election. The newspapers usually join in the fun, because they like general elections, too, but, in reality, we all know that there is absolutely no need for an election. There is usually a degree of continuity when there is a change of party leader because the same party is in charge and it is unlikely that a lot of the predecessor's policies would be overthrown. One or two things usually change, but generally there is continuity.
We are considering, however, the possibility of a change of Administration involving a different party. We know that the Labour party attempted to form some kind of rainbow coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the last election- [ Interruption. ] That was what we were told, anyway. Later in this Parliament-perhaps if the balance of power has shifted a bit towards the Opposition following by-elections-the Liberal Democrats could abandon the Conservatives in a vote of no confidence. In such circumstances, the Conservatives might be clever enough to join in that vote of no confidence to ensure that there would be a general election, but it would be far more likely that the vote would be followed by a reordering of the Executive, which might well involve the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.
Let us suppose that the maths in the House were slightly different and the two main parties were more evenly balanced. The Liberal Democrats then could genuinely choose which partner they wanted. Through the Bill, we are creating constitutional circumstances under which the third party could change the Government at will without a general election.
I am slightly flummoxed by the hon. Gentleman's charming naivety about what might have happened after the general election. The Bill does many things that are inappropriate, but I do not think it does that, and the truth of the matter is that there have been many changes of Administration over the centuries under the existing arrangements, not least in the first and second world wars. Having a fixed-term Parliament does not in itself mean what the hon. Gentleman has described will happen. It is perfectly possible that we will win a significant number of by-elections over the coming years, or that some Liberal Democrats or others may change their party affiliation, and- [Interruption.]
It is possible; I said only that. The Minister should do the nice bit again. In such circumstances, the mathematics would change.
Mr Jenkin: Inevitably, these debates always depend on speculation about what might happen, which is the one rather unsatisfactory thing about debating the future of the constitution. I have always been regarded as a bit of a pessimist about the European Union, but I did point out to a colleague that, so far, I have been proved right, and if these arrangements remain the same indefinitely, sooner or later I will be proved right again.
The point is that the Bill-except for this new measure in clause 2-is intended to remove the safety valve that allows for an early general election. However, that clause is the worst part of the Bill. As we were told by the Clerk of the House in his memorandum, before the Bill was considered in Committee:
"The Bill brings the internal proceedings of the House into the ambit of the Courts, albeit indirectly by the route of Speaker's certificates."
The procedures of the House, votes of confidence, Speaker's certificates and two-thirds majorities all become potentially justiciable, notwithstanding the Bill of Rights. For that reason, I fully support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone.
"A certificate under this section is conclusive for all purposes."
Unfortunately, clause 2(3) is itself justiciable by the courts, because we are putting this into statute. That part of the Bill, which attempts to ameliorate the problems that arise from having fixed-term Parliaments, creates the biggest constitutional headaches for Parliament itself by inviting the courts to intervene in those matters.
"shall be conclusive for all purposes",
"and shall not be questioned in any court of law."
Mr Jenkin: I put it to my hon. Friend that that wording in 1911 may well have been sufficient because it would not have entered the heads of the judges in those days to breach the Bill of Rights, but we know that members of the now Supreme Court-note the word "Supreme"-sincerely believe that Parliament is within their purview. We have had the debate about whether the sovereignty of Parliament is a common-law principle-that is, part of judge-made law, rather than an historical fact that exists in its own right as a result of the disputes between the Crown and Parliament in the 17th century.
I believe that it would be helpful if I spoke briefly on this matter, and I take this opportunity to commend my hon. Friend on his new clause. Future Parliaments should have the opportunity to throw out the proposals in clause 2. That would not wreck the Bill, but it would invite questions about what it means and how practical it is. It would certainly impel a future Parliament to
consider at the earliest opportunity whether the Fixed-term Parliaments Act should remain on the statute book-I very much hope that it will not-or to put in place much better arrangements to provide for early general elections under a fixed-term Parliament system. The Bill as drafted is nonsense and a potential disaster. If we do not fix it in this place, I hope that those in another place will do so.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), but I shall talk about the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg). The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) invoked Homer. In the case of my hon. Friend's new clause, I would invoke Cicero:
"Those who know nothing of the time before they were born shall forever remain children."
I understand the hon. Member for Rhondda being concerned about the increased politicisation of the House of Lords, and the "gridlock", or however he described it. I grew up in an age when the Standing Orders of the House of Lords-this was before my time in the House of Commons-were not so dissimilar from the Standing Orders of the House of Commons. They dealt with, among other things, delay. Very important it is, too. If there is such a thing as gridlock, there comes a point, as we sometimes see in the United States, when the people whom we are elected to represent grow increasingly angered that the business of government comes to a halt because horns are locked. That becomes the grounds for compromise and discussion as the route forward.
As I understand it, in the Lords a proposition has been offered to the Government to separate the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill into two parts, with one part going forward. So there were grounds for compromise. At the moment that is not acceptable to the Government and there is therefore gridlock, but there will come a time when that is unacceptable to a wider public, who want Parliament and the Government to move on.
Chris Bryant: I hoped that my words supported the very argument that the hon. Gentleman is making. I would, in addition, invoke Cato the Younger, who by speaking until dusk, made sure that Caesar did not always get his way. [Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House says that that was a filibuster. Cato was right to use every tactic that he had, but the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) is right, too. The Standing Orders of the House of Lords were the same as they were in this place. The fact that now the Government always have precedence over the order and the timing of debates is one of the reasons why there is no check on the Executive at all.
I am always encouraged when a political opponent, in the sense of someone from the other side of the House, adopts arguments that I advanced against him when he was sitting on the Front Bench on behalf of the Labour party. It is true. Now we see the conversion
of the defeated. That is why we should always be mindful that our hold on government is a temporary experience, and that one day we will be sitting on the Benches on the other side of the Chamber and hoping to be able to make the reasoned arguments that can convince a wider public out there.
The sheer disengagement of some of our arguments from those by whom we are elected, and from why we are elected, is to me the most worrying development of Parliament in recent years. We have scorned the historic balance of where the people lie in this matter; that is why I support both new clauses. I have asked the whole way through our consideration of the Bill how it will strengthen the people's hold over the House of Commons, which is their representative instrument for ensuring that public policy bears some relationship to the desires, hopes and aspirations of our society. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset for the informed, reasoned and reasonable way in which he presented his new clause. If it is put to a vote, I will vote for it, because I would like to show that there is some support in this House for the arguments it advances about temperance in respect of the House of Lords and its doings.
I am a democrat and truly believe in the representation of the people in this House, which is what I want to see. However, the basis of the argument that I have made the whole way through proceedings on the Bill is that we know that it is about the entrenchment of a temporary coalition, and we are trying to examine, and amend, the aspiration that things can somehow be rejigged. We have heard the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is sitting on the Front Bench, advance the startling proposition that the Queen could dismiss a Prime Minister for acting "improperly". No constitutional documents in the past two centuries, and certainly not since 1867, have stated that that was a practical reality.
Thomas Docherty: In that case, perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain why Her Majesty was able to dismiss the Government of Australia, which is part of the Commonwealth, by using the powers that she has.
Mr Shepherd: The constitutional arrangements of Australia are a matter of written statute there, and I understand that the Governor-General exercised the prerogative power in the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. However, that is not what I am concerned about; I am concerned about our own constitutional processes. I think that the statement by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was misjudged, but he has never withdrawn it. He is a representative of the Government, and of the Crown itself, but as a Member of Parliament he has never withdrawn that statement.
My nervousness about the Bill is clear. I am nervous about the idea that two parties can mandate that their existence as a coalition should last for a term of five years. I have expressed that view before, and I think that it is shared by a number of Members. I have no doubt that the Lords will think that measure trivial in some ways, because it is a presumption; how can one mandate something that is formed by human beings with their own policies and parties? They can work together to a certain extent, but the coalition will last as long as the coalition lasts. I am not damning it; I am just saying
that I do not think that they should have reached forward with a Bill of this nature. If they want to work in harness they will have the support of a great many Members of this House. We know that the nation is confronted with an economic crisis and difficult decisions have to be made. The people of this country are having to make difficult decisions on how to restore economic competence, balance budgets and all the rest of it.
We have spent a lot of time on the first matter, so I will now come to the real new clause, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, which I will undoubtedly vote for. His brevity today was extraordinary. [Laughter.] I do not laugh at it, for I think that the expression of great ideas is all the more effective for being expressed in a concentrated and condensed way. I appreciate that there is a drinks party at Downing street for Members from my party who want to attend, so I will bring my remarks to a close, as the great business of the Government must not be delayed by the musings of the House of Commons on such matters as constitutional reform. I am standing up to support the limitations that are being expressed and the hesitations about the nature of the Bill. If there were one thing that I could argue for and effect, it would be that the Government themselves realise that they have a job. We salute them for that, but, when they fiddle with the constitution in ways that suit only their own purpose and stifle the natural functioning flow of politics, we lose something, and we lose the attention of our constituents. My argument is that we cannot march to a drumbeat like that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity at least to raise our caveats, and I am grateful to the Labour party for indicating that it will support the new clause. It is important, and I commend it.
Mr Harper: I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) for his generous opening remarks and, as usual, largely excellent speech. I say "largely", because I do not entirely agree with his characterisation of the other place, given the behaviour not, I hasten to add, of their lordships' House, but of a small number of former Labour MPs, who are filibustering and abusing every procedure of that House to try to frustrate the will of this elected House of Commons, which passed the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill by a considerable majority. Apart from that, I very much enjoyed my hon. Friend's speech.
Mr Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Deputy Prime Minister to have abused the Members of the House of Lords in the form that he chose?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): That is most certainly not a point of order for me. I am sure that there are other ways in which the hon. Gentleman can express his views, and I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister-like the Minister who is present-will be well aware of what has just been said. Please, Mr Harper, continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset explained very clearly the effect of his new clause 3, and he was concerned about changes to clause 1 being made using powers in the Parliament Act 1911. It is already
the case-this is a subject on which I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)-that the Parliament Act cannot be used to push through legislation that extends the life of Parliaments. One hon. Member-I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash)-pointed out that because of the Bill's provisions allowing the Prime Minister to vary the date of an election by up to two months in an emergency, we cannot use the Parliament Act to push this legislation through against the wishes of the upper House. However, the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset would, as the hon. Member for Rhondda said, also prevent this House from reducing the length of a Parliament without the agreement of the other place. It does not seem desirable to put that provision in place.
Section 2 of the Parliament Act 1911, to which my hon. Friend's new clause refers, sets out important rules about the relationship between this House and the other place. Those rules have been in place for some time, and the Government certainly do not intend to start changing that relationship. It is already the case that we cannot lengthen a Parliament, and given what I have said, we do not want to start changing the Parliament Act as my hon. Friend's new clause would.
Mr Harper: Yes. The Bill sets out a five-year term, and in an emergency it would be possible for the Prime Minister to vary the length, so we cannot use the Parliament Act to enact it. That is a perfectly straightforward point. It is in the Bill; it is no great secret at all.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) also put his finger on this issue when he correctly drew attention to it in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset. If my hon. Friend presses the new clause to a vote I shall ask hon. Members to oppose it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone, in speaking to new clause 5, said that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was about perpetual coalition arrangements. It is not about fixed-term Governments, but about the length of Parliaments. All it does is take away the Prime Minister's power to dissolve a Parliament and bring it to an end. It replaces that right with two provisions that establish no confidence procedures, which we have already, and give Parliament the opportunity to vote for an early Dissolution.
My hon. Friend confirmed, in effect, that new clause 5 was a wrecking amendment. He said that he could not table the proposal exactly as he had wanted, because it would have been ruled out of order. I suppose that it is a wrecking amendment in a cunning disguise.
Mr Jenkin: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it not the case that if there was an attempt to table a wrecking amendment, the Clerks would rapidly describe it as out of order and it would not be selected for debate?
Mr Harper: Exactly; it is a very cunning new clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone put his finger on the point that an amendment simply to take away clause 2 would have been a wrecking amendment. The power of revival is the cunning disguise in which the new clause is wrapped.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) described clause 2 as a fig leaf. I do not agree with that characterisation, but even if the House agreed with it, I am not sure that hon. Members would be as keen to remove the fig leaf as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex appeared to be. [ Interruption. ] No, that is what he said. He said that it was a fig leaf and that he wanted to remove it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stone seemed to establish a new doctrine in his speech. He seemed to be suggesting that all Acts of Parliament should lapse at the end of a Parliament, just in case the new Parliament is of a different complexion and its Members disagree. He said that the House should not bind its successors. It is perfectly true that the House cannot bind its successors, because each successive Parliament can repeal Acts; that is the normal way. However, it is not the normal procedure for all Acts to lapse at the end of a Parliament, just in case the new Parliament disagrees with them.
The Government hope, although they cannot bind their successors, that the public and future Parliaments will find the arrangements in the Bill acceptable and will keep them in place. Future Parliaments are, of course, at liberty to change them. However, we do not think that there should be what my hon. Friend the Member for Stone described as a sunset clause to remove the powers. If clause 2 were removed as he suggested, it would effectively give back the power to the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament at will. We have argued throughout the passage of the Bill that that would be undesirable.
Chris Bryant: Many of us believe that the Prime Minister has that power even under the Bill, because all he has to do is table a motion of no confidence in his own Government, to which the Opposition would almost always agree, and there would be a general election. Be that as it may, I am sure that the Minister argued and voted for sunset clauses in relation to control orders, which, I understand, will expire next Monday. Is the same provision not necessary in this Bill?
Mr Harper: No; the Government's intention is to change the system so that there are fixed-term Parliaments, apart from in the two possible cases set out in the Bill. We think that that is a desirable change. If the public and future politicians agree that it is desirable, it will stand the test of time. That is what we hope for and what we have argued for.
My hon. Friends the Members for Stone and for Harwich and North Essex raised concerns about the two procedures in clause 2-motions of no confidence and motions on early elections-that allow for early elections. However, the House of Lords Constitution Committee was fairly supportive of those measures.
"sensible for the Bill to contain some form of safety valve which would allow for an early election in circumstances such as the government losing the confidence of the Commons or where a political or economic crisis has affected the country",
and concluded that the safety valves that we had included were appropriate. The Committee also looked at the risk of the courts intervening, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex mentioned, and concluded:
"The risk that the courts may intervene in any early dissolution of Parliament by questioning the Speaker's certificate is very small,"
"we do not consider the risk to be sufficient to warrant a rejection of clause 2 of the Bill."
Based on what the House of Lords Constitution Committee has said, I, unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, am confident that when this House approves the Bill, as I hope it will, and it is debated in their lordships' House, they will give it proper scrutiny, but in the end give it a fair wind and pass it. However, if my hon. Friend presses his new clause 5 to a vote, I will urge all hon. Members to reject it and to keep clause 2 as it stands.
One of the arguments that the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister, the Minister and the Deputy Leader of the House have advanced in favour of the Bill is that it surrenders a hefty part of the royal prerogative that has been enjoyed by the Prime Minister, in that the Prime Minister will no longer be able to cut and run. That is, the Prime Minister will no longer be able to determine the date of the general election or be free to run the constitution-and, in particular, the electoral timetable-according to party political advantage.
Those of us who have supported fixed-term Parliaments for some time, and who made many speeches about them before the last general election, agree that that is an important step to take. We support the idea of fixed-term Parliaments. We note that there have been several occasions in the past when Prime Ministers have been tempted to call general elections because they have had poll leads, and when they have cut and run. There have been other occasions when Prime Ministers have decided not to do so, because they were fearful of the electorate. We believe that it makes far more sense for local authorities, which have to administer elections, and for the Boundary Commission and the whole paraphernalia of electoral law to have the clarity that comes from knowing, in general, except for extraordinary circumstances, when the next general election will be.
However, one element of prerogative power that the Government are not surrendering is the prerogative power of Prorogation-I shall have to be careful with my syllables in the next section of my speech. As I am sure all hon. Members know, Prorogation is a rather abstruse element of the way in which we do our business. It is an irony that it is still true that Parliament can neither sit nor choose not to sit without the say-so of the Crown. I use the term "the Crown" because in
theory it is the monarch who decides, but in practice it is the monarch in consultation with the Privy Council, which means, to all intents and purposes, the Government of the day, and therefore the Prime Minister. That is laid down in a series of different elements of our constitutional settlement, but in particular, in the power of Prorogation, which lies, fairly and squarely, solely with the Crown and the Prime Minister.
It is still true that there is no requirement that a Parliament sit-except, one could argue, in so far as the provisions in the Bill of Rights determine that no money can be granted to the Crown unless it is expressly granted by Parliament, and that Parliament therefore has to meet at least once a year to agree the estimates. Similarly, one could argue that the provisions relating to not being able to have a standing army mean that Parliament has to meet every five years. A provision also exists stating that we cannot be without a Parliament for more than three years. However, I would argue-as the Social Democratic party-Liberal alliance used to argue very forcefully-that Parliament should have a permanent existence, except during those brief moments when it is dissolved.
Of course we still support the idea of having annual Sessions of Parliament, and there needs to be a means of ending each parliamentary Session. We also need a means of dissolving Parliament before a general election. However, the amendments that we have tabled today would mean that the power to decide to sit and not to sit would lie solely in the hands of this House and not in the hands of the Government. Under the current provision, Dissolution is effected by royal proclamation under the Great Seal, and the proclamation of Dissolution sometimes follows Prorogation and sometimes follows an Adjournment. Our proposal is that that proclamation and the date on which Parliament would next sit following a general election should not be decided solely by the Prime Minister, and that they should be fixed in statute, as they are in nearly every other constitution in the world.
This is especially true if we are moving towards what are being called fixed-term Parliaments but are actually fixed general election dates. It is important that the House should always know when it is next going to sit following a general election. That is why we have tabled amendment 9, which proposes that Parliament should sit
"within 15 working days of the polling day".
That would apply whether it is an early general election or one that takes place on a fixed date, such as May 2015-or, as we would argue, May 2014. We have used the term "working days" because that term has been used throughout the Bill. There is one tiny element in the Bill in which the Government refer simply to "days" rather than "working days", but they refused to accept our argument on that, and our amendment to change the wording was defeated. None the less, I think that it is better to be consistent throughout the Bill in relation to the terms that are used.
The power of Prorogation is important not only at the end of a Parliament when there is a Dissolution and a general election; it is important also at the end of a Session, in that every element of parliamentary business is suspended. There are no further sittings, and all Bills that have been commenced fall, except those that have expressly been permitted to be carried over to the next Session. As I understand it, the only other exception
relates to impeachment proceedings, which are able to continue from one Session to the next.
The power to prorogue is therefore a substantial one that the Government retain. I would argue that this is particularly important in relation to this Bill because the Government could use the power inappropriately, if it were to remain solely in their hands, if there had been a vote of no confidence in them. Let us say that the Government had opposed the vote of no confidence but lost it. There is a provision in the Bill that, in the following fortnight, a new Government would have to pass a motion of confidence. However, a motion of confidence can be agreed in the House only if Parliament is sitting. If the Government had decided to prorogue Parliament, there would be no opportunity for a new one to be formed. I can perfectly easily see a set of circumstances in which a Government, having lost a vote of confidence, want to make sure that no other Government can be formed and therefore prorogue Parliament expressly to prevent an alternative Government, thereby triggering a general election.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office who is no longer in his place, was told off earlier by one of his parliamentary colleagues for advancing the argument in a previous debate that if the Prime Minister were to act unconstitutionally, the monarch would sack that Prime Minister. I have talked this over with quite a few constitutional experts, every single one of whom said that that is complete and utter nonsense-including Vernon Bogdanor who told me that he was particularly depressed by the way in which the Minister had advanced that argument because he was one of his own students who had previously seemed to be quite intelligent, but seemed to have abandoned his sense on this point.
Thomas Docherty: My hon. Friend is articulating a coherent case. Does he agree that if we have a new electoral system, the odds of having a hung Parliament will increase greatly and that if this Parliament did not have an opportunity to re-form a Government, that would be expressly against the wishes of the people, who had clearly voted for a hung Parliament?
Chris Bryant: I detect a bit of a difference of view between my hon. Friend and myself here. I hate to say this, but I am rather more with the Deputy Leader of the House on this issue. My hon. Friend is right in saying that if a proportional system were introduced, a succession of hung Parliaments would be more likely. Consensus would rule the day and coalition Governments would be formed on a fairly regular basis. That is not absolutely certain, as it has not happened in some countries that have proportional representation. However, the alternative vote, which I shall be voting for- [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) shouts out, "Shame", but it expressly points out in "Erskine May" that shouting "Shame" is unparliamentary. I would not want to excoriate him on that basis. I am not quite sure on which page it says that, but I am sure he will find it, if he looks for it. [Interruption.]
Chris Bryant: I am just trying to help you out, Mr Deputy Speaker. You did say earlier that you were at the edge of your knowledge and this might not be a page you have reached in your reading of "Erskine May".
My point was that the alternative vote system does not necessarily lead to more hung Parliaments. It depends entirely on the political climate of the day. The fact that first past the post has on this occasion delivered us a hung Parliament and that we have had coalition Governments many times over the last 140 years provides evidence that it is not first past the post that delivers a particular version of government, but how people vote in the particular circumstances.
Chris Bryant: I was referring to the use of Prorogation at the end of a parliamentary Session. I believe that that should be in the hands of this House, not in the hands of the Government. Sorry, in fact I was referring to the case where a Government might choose to use Prorogation expressly to prevent an alternative Government from being formed. The Deputy Leader of the House might reassert what the Parliamentary Secretary said earlier-that the monarch would simply sack the Prime Minister in such circumstances-but I do not believe that the monarch has such a power. In fact, since statute law would have expressly stated that that power was still there, I cannot see how that could possibly happen. Alternatively, the Deputy Leader of the House might say that the monarch would refuse to grant Prorogation. That would set the monarch directly against the Prime Minister, and in such a contest there would be a real constitutional crisis, which some would want to take to the courts because the provisions would by then have been placed in statute law.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Mr David Heath): The hon. Gentleman is exploring an interesting argument, but there is currently nothing to prevent a Prime Minister from requesting Prorogation to avoid a vote of no confidence if he believes that the monarch will accede to his request. Given that that has never happened, why does the hon. Gentleman think that such a constitutional anomaly is more likely to arise following the passage of the Bill than under the present arrangements?
Chris Bryant: The Deputy Leader of the House has made a fair point. However, because we are now putting in statute significant elements of the way in which the British constitution might work in the future, rather than, of necessity, what exists at present, we are creating a labyrinth which Prime Ministers may well wish to navigate. I shall say more about that shortly, once I have given way to the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), who is talking to a Whip at the moment.
I believe that there is a recent precedent in Canada, whose Parliament-if I understand the position correctly-was prorogued for two or three months by a minority Government, against the wishes of many parliamentary parties.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman has predicted almost exactly what I was about to say. The 40th Canadian Parliament, which was elected on 14 October 2008 and opened on 18 November, was prorogued by the Governor-General almost immediately, on 4 December, at the specific request of the then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. I do not think that there is a deliberate coincidence between his surname and that of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office.
Mr Harper expected a motion of no confidence in his Government, and a coalition agreement was established between the various parties with the support of the Bloc Québécois. As the hon. Gentleman says, that Prorogation was quite substantial, and a second Prorogation at the end of 2009 lasted for more than two months. Many complained that it too had been arranged expressly to avoid a political inconvenience. At the time, a big row was taking place about the detention of Afghans by Canadian forces.
As the hon. Gentleman suggests, there is a real danger that Prorogation could be used in a rather more assertive and political fashion. Governments in this country have tended not to use it in such a way, partly because it means losing the business on which they have embarked and having to start it all over again. That will probably continue, but given that Select Committee reports-including reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee-also fall in such circumstances, I can easily imagine that a Government might choose to prorogue a month earlier than usual, perhaps very early in a Parliament, in order to avoid a political necessity. Interestingly, the ostensible reason given by the Canadians was the prospect of the winter Olympics in Canada. They said it was imperative that the Canadian Government should be able to get on with its business, and that Parliament should not be able to meet during the Olympics.
I think it is right for the power to cease to be wholly in the hands of the Crown, and to be in the hands of the House. I also think that we should start to clarify the knitting pattern, as it were, of this part of the constitution as it currently exists. The laws governing Prorogation hang on a series of Acts of Parliament: the Prorogation Act 1867, the Meeting of Parliament Acts 1694, 1797, 1799 and 1870, and the Parliament (Elections and Meeting) Act 1943. The thrust of all those Acts is that the monarch is entirely able to prorogue Parliament, to decide when it will next meet, and to continue to prorogue with only the safeguards of the measures that I mentioned earlier in the context of the Bill of Rights.
There is a considerable lack of clarity in regard to the process in the run-up to a general election. We know when the next general election will be, at least according to the Bill, although we still hope that their Lordships may enforce their will and ensure that it takes place in 2014 rather than 2015. Indeed, I hope that a significant number of Conservatives will support the 2014 date, if only to shrug off the embrace of the Liberal Democrats. However, given that we know when the next general election is expected to be, it surely makes sense for us to rationalise the process of Prorogation.
Up to 1974, there were only two 20th-century general elections in which a Dissolution was not preceded by a Prorogation: the elections of 22 August 1922 and 31 July 1964. As I am sure Members have already spotted, both those elections took place in the summer months, during
long recesses when the House stood adjourned. Adjournment, of course, follows a decision by the House, not the Government. There followed a period during which the Government decided to abandon Prorogation. There were adjournments in the summer of 1974, in 1979, in 1983 and in 1987, with no Prorogation.
By 1987, the assumption seemed to have become that the House would do without Prorogation at the end of a Parliament and before Dissolution, partly because the Royal Assent Act 1967 had allowed Royal Assent to be granted by notification rather than necessarily by Prorogation. There was, and still is, no specific need at Prorogation for Royal Assent to Acts that had not yet been referred to. In fact, in 1987 there was something of a row in the House. Mr Speaker Weatherill said that he thought it inappropriate for us to abandon Prorogation. It may be apposite to discuss that occasion this evening, given that so many Members have left the Chamber to go to a drinks party in Downing street. Incidentally, is the sun already past the yardarm? It is not yet 6 pm, and Conservatives are already drinking in Downing street. Tradition has gone by the board.
On that occasion in 1987, the Speaker and several Members, including Mr Faulds, expressed the view that one of the traditions that had developed over the years was that once a Parliament had been prorogued, Members had an opportunity to make final speeches, and the Speaker had an opportunity to bid farewell to those who would not be standing in the subsequent election. I believe that 86 were not standing again in 1987. Mr Speaker Weatherill said that he thought it was wrong for there to be no Prorogation before Dissolution, and several Members agreed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) was the only one who believed that it would be good to get rid of Prorogations, because the whole business of Lords Commissioners doffing their caps in the House of Lords struck him as a ludicrous ceremony that should be abolished. A fair number of Members probably think that the quaintness of that moment should not simply be chucked away for the sake of it. My point is, however, that the decision on whether Prorogation should take place ought to lie in the hands of the House rather than in those of Government. I also think it is important for it to be known at that point exactly when the first sitting of the new Parliament will be.
Because, I suspect, of Mr Speaker Weatherill's views, Dissolution was again preceded by Prorogation in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2010. However, in 2001 Parliament was dissolved without being prorogued, and was simply adjourned on 11 May 2001. Adjournment was, of course, a decision of the House, not the Government.
In summary, it is important that, just as the Government are surrendering the prerogative power in relation to Dissolution, they should also surrender the prerogative power in relation to Prorogation. They should do so for
three reasons: first so as not to have the temptation of being able to use Prorogation to prevent business that they do not want to happen; secondly because we are putting into statute measures in respect of what happens in the case of a motion of no confidence which make express provision for there being a strict period of time during which a motion of confidence has to be passed and which could only be passed if the House were sitting, and therefore not prorogued; and thirdly because we need to tidy up the processes we go through at the end of a Parliament-not the end of a parliamentary Session-both by determining that we should have a Prorogation but that the decision on the date should be left to this House and not to the Government, and by ensuring that, as in amendment 9, there is a clear date for when the new Parliament will be sitting.
New clause 4 therefore puts Prorogation directly in the hands of the Commons and repeals several of the historical provisions in statute. It would clarify all these issues. It allows for the House to decide either immediately to prorogue, or to allow the Speaker to prorogue at a later time that is, however, fixed. It would also repeal the Prorogation Act 1867 and tidy up a variety of measures.
Amendment 2 amends the Crown Act 1707-that is important-and amendment 3 repeals the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797. Amendment 4 amends section 51 of the Representation of the People Act 1867 so that any reference to Dissolution or Prorogation is entirely omitted. Amendment 9 would require Parliament to meet "within 15 working days" after a general election. In the vast majority of cases in the last 61 years since the second world war, that would meet the needs of every new Parliament. These measures would bring the sitting, holding and closing of Parliament into Parliament's hands.
We have further amendments in this group, to which I also wish to refer briefly. As all Members know, the length of time that is allowed for a general election has historically been 17 days. That is referred to in the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended, which makes provision for the
"Last day for delivery of nomination papers/withdrawals of candidature/appointment of election agents"
to be on the sixth day after Dissolution, with polling day 11 days after that. That has made perfect sense over the years, when we have been completely uncertain as to the likely date of the general election-it could be in January, March, April or any time of the year. However, under the Bill we are now moving over to a situation in which general elections will nearly always be in May, and on the same day as local elections, Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland, and elections for the Scottish Parliament. For each of those elections the timetable is a 25-day period, not a 17-day period. I think it makes sense to have the same length of time for all sets of elections that are being held on the same day.
Various considerations apply to this issue of course, including national expenditure on election campaigns, local expenditure, the amount an individual candidate can spend on promoting their own candidature, and a whole series of different measures in relation to electoral law. They all come into play the moment that short campaign period has started. It therefore makes sense for the period to be the same for all the different candidates who are standing for election at the same
time. I have spoken to the Electoral Commission, which has been campaigning for equalisation in this regard for some time. It is interesting that while the Representation of the People Act 1983 set a timetable of 17 days for a general election, every time a new body has been set up subsequently, the decision has been made to set the period at 25 days rather than 17 days.
Several years ago, the second speech I ever made in this House was on the Ofcom paving Bill, which was introducing Ofcom and getting rid of the various different bodies that then regulated broadcasting and telecoms. I said it would be great to get rid of lots of bodies and just have one because it would be coherent, more consistent and, to use a "Valleys'" word-as in the south Wales Valleys-it would be tidy. Unfortunately however, Hansard rendered that as to use a "valet's" word. We do not have many valets in the Valleys, but I would still assert-I hope that the Hansard reporters are noting this-that the proposal I have just mentioned would be more coherent, more consistent, and that, to use a Valleys word, it would be tidy. [Interruption.] I see that I have support for this amendment from one of the Conservative Whips; I hope I will see him in the Division Lobby later.
I very much hope that the Government will feel able to support these amendments. I understand that there may be some uncertainty in relation to the period of the general election campaign, but I hope that what will triumph in Ministers' minds is a desire to see greater clarity and tidiness in our electoral arrangements as we move towards a fixed-term Parliament.
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Anybody who knows me knows that my appreciation of a glass of reasonably priced white wine is second to no one's in this House, and my appreciation of a glass of reasonably priced white wine served by the Prime Minister in No. 10 Downing street is extreme, but my love for the British constitution is greater than that.
Nick Boles: The shadow Minister asks whether my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is charging for the drinks he is serving in No. 10 Downing street. In response, I would merely point out something that seems to have escaped the attention of Opposition Members.
Thomas Docherty: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman seems to be claiming that the Prime Minister is using Downing street for commercial purposes. Is it appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to make such a serious allegation against his own Prime Minister?
Nick Boles: I do not want to stray from the subject of the new clauses and the amendments, but I should point out something that seems permanently to escape Opposition Members, which is that we live in a time of austerity, and our Prime Minister is doing everything he can to maximise revenue to the Exchequer and minimise expense, hence the reasonably priced wine being served and the-
Nick Boles: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was in danger of being wholly distracted from my point, which is that my love for the British constitution, such as it is, is greater even than my love for a glass of reasonably priced white wine served at No. 10 Downing street, and there is no part of the British constitution for which I have a greater passion than that nebulous concept of Prorogation. It is the subject of the stories that my parents read to me by my bedside when I was a child. I agree that it sounds like a sad childhood, but such it was.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made an ingenious argument about the dangers of this power remaining with the sovereign. He suggested that a Prime Minister presiding without a secure majority and having lost a vote of no confidence in this House might advise the sovereign to prorogue Parliament to avoid the possibility of Parliament passing a vote of confidence in an alternative Government and thereby bringing about an election, rather than the installation of a new Government. I am second to none in my passion for the nebulous concept of Prorogation, but I am no lawyer, unlike the hon. Gentleman.
Nick Boles: I withdraw that comment, Mr Deputy Speaker, which was almost certainly unparliamentary and banned by "Erskine May". The hon. Gentleman said he felt he had a certain expertise in English law but not in Scottish law. I point out that my expertise in any law is equivalent to his expertise in Scottish law, so I am skating across boggy ground, if such a thing is possible.
The hon. Gentleman tried to argue that the power to prorogue should transfer to Parliament so that a Prime Minister who has lost his majority and lost the confidence of this House cannot use the power and the persuadability of the sovereign to remain in office and require an election to be called. He has an excessively colourful imagination. I understand that where no party has a clear majority in this House the role of the sovereign is to see whether a stable Government can be formed.
We saw a very good example of that after the last general election, when there was no clear result and no party had a clear majority in this House. The sovereign behaved impeccably in allowing and encouraging the parties, both the Labour party in government and the Opposition parties, to explore which arrangement was the most stable and to form the Government who had the most chance of lasting. Surely where a party in government has lost a vote of confidence in this House and no longer commands a stable majority here it would be an absolutely integral part of the sovereign's constitutional role to invite the other party leaders to explore whether they could form a stable majority. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) frowns. I would be happy to take an intervention from him, but may I finish explaining my logic? He can then explain to me why, as so often, it is flawed.
The sovereign would invite other party leaders to see whether they could secure a stable majority and they would have those conversations even if Parliament had
been prorogued. If a group of parties not then in the Government told Her Majesty-or His Majesty, on some future date-that they could form a stable Government and provided good evidence of that fact, and if the Cabinet Secretary were to advise that they were a stable Government, there is no reason why Her Majesty should not invite the leader of the parties putting together that constellation to form a Government. At that point, that leader would be the Prime Minister and could kiss hands-all of that can happen without Parliament being involved. That leader would then be the Prime Minister and would be able to "rerogue" or "unrogue"-I do not know what the correct term is-and recall Parliament, thus cancelling Prorogation, and put their Government to a vote of confidence. If they were successful, that would obviate the need for a further election. So I do not think that the logic of the argument made by the hon. Member for Rhondda holds.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I apologise for not being here earlier in the debate, but I am seriously concerned about what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, which is a degree of politicisation of the monarch, as Head of State, from which I would draw back. If a degree of automaticity were involved and any Prime Minister of the day who could not form a Government automatically, as a convention, asked the leader of the next major party to form one, that would be one thing. If the monarch is making political judgments about who he or she should choose, that is a very different matter. When George V involved himself in helping to form the national Government in 1931 that was pushing the monarch too far into politics. Heads of State should not have that role.
Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman also makes a strong argument and has much greater historical knowledge than I do. I would say only that if the Bill becomes law, it will become a clear part of our constitutional arrangements that the expectation, the desire and the will of the people is that we have fixed-term Parliaments lasting five years. Therefore, should there be an interruption that led to a vote of no confidence in a Government and the Prime Minister came to the sovereign asking for her to prorogue Parliament, it would be clear to the sovereign, who would also receive advice from her advisers, that there was a danger of frustrating the constitution and frustrating the will of the people for us to have elections every five years.
Given that the Prime Minister would have lost a vote of confidence in this House-in the old days that would normally have automatically led to their no longer having a right to govern-I do not think it would be classified as the sovereign "meddling" in politics were she then to say that she would invite alternatives if the Prime Minister could not tell her that he or she could form a stable Government without going to the people in an election. If the Prime Minister could not give her that reassurance, it would be entirely proper for the sovereign-her advisers would tell her this-to see whether the Parliament that had not run its full course did not contain an alternative stable Government who could be formed and for her to invite the relevant leader of any such Government to kiss hands, become Prime Minister and resummon Parliament to see whether they could
win a vote of confidence. That is why the fear of the hon. Member for Rhondda is not justified. In fact, a reverse fear is involved.
Dan Byles (North Warwickshire) (Con): Is not the very purpose behind the Bill and the cooling-off period after a vote of no confidence precisely to allow that to happen? The expectation would not be that Her Majesty or His Majesty would interfere in the political process. Under the Bill, such a situation would throw the game open to see whether a Government who can command the confidence of this House can be formed. People elect MPs and then, to a certain extent, they expect us to get on and govern; they do not expect us to squabble, throw our toys out of the pram and have another election because it suits us.
Nick Boles: My hon. Friend puts it far more succinctly and better than I could. The key point is that there is nothing to stop that process happening just because Parliament is prorogued. We do not stop existing or being able to have conversations with each other, with Her Majesty's advisers or with senior members of the civil service because Parliament is prorogued. We would still exist, we would still be MPs and we would still be able to go through that process.
Thomas Docherty: "Erskine May" is quite clear about the fact that if Parliament is prorogued, all the Bills before the House fall. So it is not entirely accurate to say that there is no effect to proroguing Parliament.
The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) is completely wrong. A person from the same political party might want to take over. The no-confidence vote might apply to the Prime Minister as an individual rather than to the whole Government. I would agree with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) were it not for the way in which the Bill is worded, because it refers to the period of 14 days-not 14 sitting days. The House could be adjourned or prorogued during that period, or it could already be prorogued. There are many different situations in which we need to seize this power back into the hands of the House rather than the Government.
Nick Boles: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has thought about this for longer, more deeply and in a more researched way than I have, as I was invited to make this speech only a relatively short time ago.
Dan Byles: It is a slightly odd idea that we could have a vote of no confidence and that somebody from the governing party might take up the reins. Any party that had a vote of no confidence rather than a leadership challenge to change their leader would be highly irresponsible.
Nick Boles: My hon. Friend is right. There were moments in the previous Parliament when we all might have wished that the party in government had taken that route rather than imposing on us the rather long, drawn-out demise that we all witnessed.
Chris Bryant: Much as I like the other hon. Gentleman, whose name I do not know- [ Laughter. ] No, I do, but he was completely wrong. He would be right if the Bill determined what counted as a motion of no confidence, but it does not. A motion of no confidence could be a motion of censure of an individual person. It might be tabled by the Opposition, and, if they won, they would end up unseating somebody as a party leader without unseating the Government.
Let me move on to the solution proposed by the hon. Member for Rhondda, which, to my mind, is as flawed-though also as ingenious-as his analysis of what he sees as the problems with the Bill. His solution is that this House, and exclusively this House, would have the power to prorogue. I believe that the House would adopt a resolution and the Speaker would then prorogue Parliament. The problem is another circumstance that the Opposition parties have talked about. When a Prime Minister with a rather small majority in this House feels, in the middle of a five-year term, that everything is going frightfully well, they might cynically decide to engineer a vote of no confidence that they would then instruct their Members to vote for in order to bring the House down, to prorogue and, more importantly, to have a further election. I have heard in earlier discussions that that vexes and worries Opposition Members and the hon. Member for Rhondda. Surely, his solution would fall prey to that ruse far more than happens under the current circumstances, when only the monarch can prorogue Parliament.
If a Prime Minister who felt that everything was going frightfully well and that if he had a quick election he could get a better majority could engineer a vote of no confidence by getting his troops to support it, surely he could engineer a resolution of the House to prorogue just as cynically, wilfully and arbitrarily. Does not the hon. Gentleman's proposal move the power of prorogation, which currently sits in that special, rather hallowed constitutional place of being one of the few things that the sovereign does, on to the Floor of this House where it will become subject to all the machinations and swirls of this place and of ambitious Prime Ministers trying to secure a better majority?
Prime Ministers are by definition ambitious, I think-that was otiose. No. The Prime Minister, to all intents and purposes, is the Crown and the Crown, to all intents and purposes, is the Prime Minister in the exercise of prerogative powers. Secondly, there is a significant advantage in not just being able to prorogue
and close Parliament by proclamation but having to come to the House to make a speech to argue for it. That is the big difference.
Nick Boles: Although I defer hugely to the hon. Gentleman's greater understanding, he betrays a lack of a feel for how this constitution of ours works. The same criticism could be applied to some of his other amendments. The whole point of our constitution is that it is organic and flexible, and that it develops over time. Everything we do, every decision we make and every Bill we pass slightly shifts and changes the constitution. It is a not a rules-based constitution but a practice-based constitution. Of course, there are rules-the Parliament Acts, the Salisbury convention and so on-but they develop and metamorphose as we use them.
Once we have passed this Bill and created five-year Parliaments and the expectation that they are the norm for this country, the constitution will have changed. The way in which the sovereign uses her powers to invite people to form Governments, to see whether they can win the confidence of this House, to prorogue and to accept advice from a Prime Minister will change. We will all make the argument that it would be profoundly unconstitutional for a Prime Minister who had just lost a vote of no confidence to abuse his power as the monarch's sole adviser to advise her to prorogue a Parliament. It would be absolutely within the monarch's rights to say, "I am defending the constitution. I am defending this new expectation that we should have five-year Parliaments by trying to see whether there is somebody other than this loser, who has just lost the confidence of the House, who can command a majority. That does not interfere with Parliament or government-I am in fact interpreting properly the will of the people, which is that we should have five-year terms." I believe that the hon. Member for Rhondda thinks that these rules are unchanging and unbending and that they will not shift and metamorphose in response to the Bill.
Thomas Docherty: The hon. Gentleman has referred repeatedly to the will of the people, but at no point did his party leader or the Deputy Prime Minister promise a five-year term. However, his party leader did say that if there was a change of Prime Minister, there would be a general election within six months. Why has that not been considered as part of the Government's Bill?
The hon. Gentleman is cunning, as ever. Unfortunately, in almost all his interventions in this debate-and in any other-he tends to argue that this House represents the sovereign will of the people, so it is a bit rich for him to shift ground and suddenly say that if something was not discussed in an election campaign, it did not receive the endorsement of the people. We are sufficient and entire unto ourselves, capable of representing the will of the people. If we decide, as I believe and hope we will, that we want to adopt this Bill, and if the gentlemen and ladies in the other place decide that they would prefer to have slightly more sleep and approve the Bill, we will have decided-we
are the will of the people-that this is how we want our constitution to operate in future. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's ingenious objection.
Nick Boles: The question that has been asked does not relate to the clause or the amendments and I defer always to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, as to whether my comments would be relevant, although of course I want to be courteous to my hon. Friend.
As I hear in the distance the light pop of the second bottle being opened in No. 10 Downing street, I shall move on to other amendments in the group. The hon. Member for Rhondda has talked about tidying up. "Tidy" is a great word, particularly when spoken in the inimitable accent not of the valets, but of the valleys. I rather share his love of the word, but not the concept. It is an entirely classic Labour reaction to try to make everything neat and tidy. His further amendments would tidy up and specify when Parliament would return after a general election, but he has not told us why or when this has been a problem in the past. He never said, "There was that famous time when something happened in the country and we were not able to discuss it because we had not returned," or, "There was that famous time when the Prime Minister did not want to do PMQs and avoided them because she or he was so terrified." He has not given any reasons to explain why things are not working at the moment, so this is one of the rare occasions on which I shall associate myself with the deep instinct of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) that we should not change things unless they are demonstrably broken.
Nick Boles: That is an even more ingenious attempt, Mr Deputy Speaker, because it is harder for me to appeal to you for succour on this point, but I reject my hon. Friend's point because I believe that the Bill is one of principle. I believe that the idea of Prime Ministers picking the dates of elections is wholly outrageous in a modern democracy and that we must have fixed-term Parliaments. I happen to know that this argument has been raging inside the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties for years, so it is a cause of high principle.
The history of the British constitution is that changes of high principle happen only when the parties in power see political advantage in such change; that is how democracy works. Britain has been reformed when the great causes have been aligned with low party interest and I thank-I am not sure if I am allowed to say what I was going to say-the stars that in this Parliament at this time that alliance of high principle and low politics has come together and that we are putting through
Parliament a Bill that will establish fixed-term elections and remove the Prime Minister's right to choose a date that is to his or her advantage.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman, but I would be more convinced by his argument if the Bill were to apply after the next election, but this looks like a Government trying to perpetuate their term in office to five years.
Nick Boles: I detect from the hon. Gentleman's expression and demeanour that he is worried, but he should not be because we genuinely want the changes to become permanent-as much as the constitution of our country can allow that. We genuinely want there to be, at least for as long as any of us can see, a habit, norm and expectation deep in our society that there will be elections in May every five years. I hope that is how the situation will be perceived in this country after the Bill is passed-without my hon. Friends' amendments.
Nick Boles: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend-may I call him that? I feel as though we are friends even though we sit on opposite sides. I am always nervous about the customs of this place: I wanted to say thank God; I meant thank God; and frankly the stars have absolutely nothing to do with it. I am happy to be corrected.
Returning to the tidiness of the amendment of the hon. Member for Rhondda, he has not demonstrated, or even provided a shred of evidence to explain why the current point at which Parliament is recalled after an election is a problem or causes any difficulties. We should reject his amendment.
The hon. Gentleman has tabled another amendment to regulate the timetable for elections and he has again made a superficially appealing argument about lining up the different election timetables for different tiers of government, but it will not have escaped the attention of Government Members that he has, as ever, lined up with the longer figure. That betrays the deep belief of the Labour party, of which the hon. Gentleman provides a good example, that what the country needs are more politics, longer election campaigns, more leaflets going through doors and more people knocking on one's door just when EastEnders is on or when a good game has started.
Dan Byles: The House has faced a big problem with fundraising and the increasing cost of democracy. Would not longer election campaigns lead to more expense and a greater requirement for parties to raise funds? We all know that parties get into trouble however they try to raise funds, so is this not the wrong direction to go in?
Well, the hon. Gentleman should not, because if we extended the 17 days to 25, there would be less need to raise money because the amount that can be spent in a short election campaign is much more
circumscribed than the amount that could be spent across the whole of the previous year. With a fixed-term Parliament, it should be possible to restrict the amount of money much more readily, so that is a further reason-I am glad he has added another-for him to support my amendment.
The issue is whether the timetables should conform to the lower figure of 17 days or the higher figure of 25 days. My instinct, and probably that of most Government Members, is that any conformity should be to a shorter election campaign and a quicker decision. However, we must then address the issue of whether it is appropriate to determine that figure in this Bill. I believe that the Bill makes a fundamental constitutional change-to that extent I agree with those of my hon. Friends who are uncomfortable with parts of it-but that is why I support it. I want that fundamental constitutional change and I want it to remain for ever. I want it to be something that people will describe in 25 or 30 years' time as one of the big constitutional shifts in the life of modern Britain. Because the Bill will make such a fundamental constitutional change, I do not want to hang about with all sorts of little, pernickety tidying-up exercises. I do not want to lumber the Bill with measures that might seem irrelevant in future, thereby opening the door to further amendment. I want the Bill to have as few clauses as possible-clear clauses that are based on the principled position that the timing of an election should not be up to the Prime Minister but should be a matter of rhythm and pattern defined by our constitution.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Is it not in the nature of these issues that parliamentarians will take the opportunity, when a relevant Bill comes before the House, to deal with matters for which such an opportunity might not come again for a long time? What is the hon. Gentleman's position on the amendment? Does he agree that the election period should be the same for local, parliamentary and Assembly elections, but not that it should be extended? Clearly, there are advantages to having the same period for all elections, not least in terms of calculating election expenditure for returns.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman and I agree with him. If we are to have, as I hope we will, elections falling in a regular pattern, coinciding with other elections to other important democratic bodies, it seems obvious that there should be a consistent series. Otherwise, people would find it very confusing if local election campaigns had started while the parliamentary election campaign they all knew was coming had not. In such a situation, if parties put out leaflets with councillors on one side and a parliamentary candidate on the other, they might get into trouble for jumping the gun. The point he makes is absolutely right, but we should not necessarily decide here and now, in this Bill, between the proposals for 17 or 25 days, or even that the length should be 17 or 25 days. If we want to make this change, should we not think a bit harder about what the period should be? I have only thought of it on the spur of the moment, but I think I could make a very strong
case for 12 days, and if someone wants to enter into a bit of a Dutch auction and say eight days, I would be happy with that too.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is wrong, because one major reason why we might want a slightly longer period is to allow people who register for a postal vote to get their vote in on time. The hon. Gentleman's Government will be legislating for prisoners to have the vote; they will vote by post, as I understand it. In addition, as I heard him say earlier, people who live abroad-especially those in the armed forces-who vote by post would find it impossible to do so within a period of eight or 12 days. They already find it very difficult to do so within 17 days but they do manage to do so within the 25-day period for local elections.
Nick Boles: The hon. Gentleman is being a trifle unkind because he knew I was being a little light-hearted and frivolous; indeed he indulges himself in such behaviour. Whereas we allow him to get away with it, he has taken my light-hearted conjectures as a serious suggestion. What he has done, however, is to demonstrate the force of my argument, which is that we should have a proper discussion, separate from the Bill, about the question, "What is the right time period?"
There are many good counter-arguments; the hon. Gentleman has enumerated some of them. My sympathies for those prisoners denied their right to vote are more limited than my sympathies for the other categories of potential postal voter that he mentioned, but I am sure that those prisoners too will have their defenders. Should we not have a separate debate on a separate piece of legislation on this question-if legislation is required? Maybe it is required, but I do not think that we should be making this amendment to a Bill that needs to stand the test of time. It needs to rest as a keystone in our constitution that lasts through the ages and is not eroded by time. I hope, therefore, that everyone in the House will choose to reject the new clauses and the amendments proposed by the hon. Gentleman.
Before I speak to the two amendments in my name, I want to discuss new clause 4 and some of the other amendments on Prorogation. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) that anomalies left in legislation can lead to all sorts of continuing questions, and to absurdities and abuses. In so far as we are trying to create fixed-term Parliaments and trying to set out in clear and reliable terms the circumstances in which an election can be brought about early, we should as far as possible have those arrangements as tidy-to use the hon. Gentleman's valley word-as possible.
However, I accept the point that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford made: that the amendments of themselves would not sort out all the questions. If our real fear is that a future Francis Urquhart Prime Minister will exploit these anomalies and devices to create all sorts of problems, the amendments themselves would not fully prevent that, because a Machiavellian
Prime Minister who was able to marshal and control votes in the House would be able to do exactly the same with Prorogation. To a degree we are in the realm of,
"There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza".
Each time we try to solve the problem, we come back to the basic issue of trust and control-the control that a Prime Minister and Whips could have in the House, where things rest on a vote determined by the Prime Minister.
I believe, however, that important amendments tabled by Members on the Opposition Front Bench would at least ensure that there are not open and blatant inconsistencies between election spending windows for different elections that could be taking place fairly coterminously. Simply as a matter of good legislative practice, we should as far as possible try to resolve those problems and keep things squared now.
Also in response to what the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford said, if we are serious about the Bill being a fixed-term Parliament Bill, and if its purpose is to prevent people from being surprised into an election or an election from being called at a stroke, it could help if we had clear fixed time limits for Prorogation, such as those that are being suggested. I am somewhat like the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) in that I come from a political tradition that does not particularly like caps being doffed in the House of Lords or anywhere else, so I would prefer to avoid the constitutional eccentricity of Prorogation, but if that is part of the chosen furniture and architecture of this place, at least let us ensure that we do not trip over it in a dangerous way.
Amendments 14 and 15, which are in my name, would amend clause 2. As with some of the comments that the hon. Member for Rhondda made in proposing new clause 4, my amendments 14 and 15 are intended to question the Government's argument that the Bill is about removing prerogative powers from the Prime Minister to call elections. It was said in earlier debates on the Bill that the significant move is that the current Prime Minister will be the first to give up that power. If that is the case, why, when an election is called early under clause 2(1) or the confidence measure in clause 2(2), is it left to the Prime Minister to recommend the election date? Clause 2(1) relates to when a vote takes place in the House of Commons for an early election date and that vote is certified by the Speaker. I believe that in such circumstances it should be entirely possible for the House, in such a Division, to specify the date rather than leaving it up to the Prime Minister.
This matter arose in debates at earlier stages. Some amendments had come from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and some of its amendments brought us into the situation where everyone in the Chamber at Committee stage was talking about the provisions of clause 2(1) and (2). They talked about the vote taking place in close calendar quarters to the calling of the election, whereas I believe that we should make clear provision relating to clause 2(1) to allow Parliament to vote maybe a year, maybe even two years ahead of the due date of an election, to say, "No, for good stated reasons we are going early." It might be that England has finally won a bid for the World cup and that tournament will coincide with the due date for an election, and people might well sensibly say in advance
that they want to move it-or similarly for the Olympics or another event. Or-people seem to be very taken with royal weddings at the minute-perhaps some such event could be taking place in close proximity to the due date for an election, in which case Parliament might very sensibly agree to move the date forward. As the Bill stands, Parliament cannot do that.
Mr Charles Walker: If we support the notion of a fixed-term Parliament, which I do not, surely we have to accept that risk. If we support the idea of having a fixed date in the calendar, it is just tough if there happens to be a royal wedding at the same time. We cannot have it both ways.
Another argument that has been made is that the Bill is about removing a prerogative from a Prime Minister and giving powers to the House. If that is what we are saying-not just that the Prime Minister is giving up some powers, but that the House is getting some-my amendment would ensure that the House gets more powers. The House should be equipped, not just to pass a motion calling for an early general election, but to specify the date-instead of leaving it to the Prime Minister to recommend to the monarch when that date should be-and there should be provision for Parliament to do so sensibly in advance. The amendments that we all debated in Committee all presumed that it would be in a matter of weeks, similar to the debate that we have just had about 17 days and 25 days' Prorogation-in other words, in fairly close calendar quarters. I believe that we should make provision in clause 2(1) to allow the House to set a date, which is what amendment 14 would do. It would provide a fourth point that could be covered by a Speaker's certificate: whether or not a date was specified and what the date was. Amendment 15 would amend clause 2(6), so that the date could be specified.
Mr Dodds: I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument. I am a supporter of the Bill in principle, but having established the fixed-term principle in legislation, is not the danger of his amendments that, by resolution of the Commons proposed by the Prime Minister who rallies his troops, the principle would be effectively undermined by setting another date? So what would be the point of legislating in the first place?
Mark Durkan: I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, but let us remember that the Speaker can issue two types of certificate-under clause 2(2), which relates to confidence motions, and under clause 2(1), in respect of a resolution passed by two thirds of Members-and my amendments deal only with those circumstances. If we legislate for a resolution to be passed by two thirds of Members and for the Speaker to certify certain things about that, it would be a gross oversight not to provide for hon. Members, in so voting in such a Division, to specify a date if they wished to do so, rather than to leave that up to the Prime Minister.
I do not wish to go into the constitutional twilight zone that the hon. Member for Rhondda took us into about some of the wily vagaries of prorogation powers, but if we simply leave it to a Minister, even the Prime
Minister, to set a date and make no provision for the House to specify a date, we leave ourselves open to possible uncertainties and, indeed, abuses. I remind the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) that we have served in an Assembly where a Secretary of State had certain powers and obligations for setting election dates. There have been court cases about whether or not the Secretary of State had duly exercised those powers and whether he had chosen not to see things and then said that he had exercised the power to set a date by simply setting the same date that had been suggested. People have used the different devices that the law allowed.
I am simply saying that if we charge the House with the possibility of setting a different election date for its own good reasons-I assume that they would need to be good reasons if the motion was supported by two thirds of Members-we should at least allow the House to specify the date as well if we are to hold to the spirit of the Prime Minister giving up powers.
Like other hon. Members, I have serious reservations about Speaker's certificates. My amendments would not suspend any of the qualifications that I and many other hon. Members have on that subject-the worries about the implications in terms of courts and so on-but the more that we charge the House with powers and controls in relation to the issue, the more content I would be with the Bill.
Dan Byles: I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important discussion. The entire issue of fixed-term Parliaments, sadly, is in danger of becoming yet another political football to be kicked around the House, as Members seek to manufacture objections to reform, and to posture and grandstand. I fear that the new clause and amendments for the most part would not add to the Bill in any meaningful way. The issue is really very simple. I believe that the Bill will strengthen the power of the House over a key constitutional issue and diminish the Prime Minister's power.
Before coming to the detail of the new clause and amendments, let us remember exactly what this historic Bill is about. Previously, the Prime Minister had the power to ask for an early Dissolution of Parliament at any time. Historically, that extraordinary degree of power has been used solely to the political advantage of the party in power.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for alluding to an argument that I have heard time and again, when people suggest, "If it isn't broke, don't fix it," but I shall come to the problems with the current situation in a moment. He also alludes to the interesting idea that we have a democratic system that works, so we should not amend or tinker with it. I have heard Opposition Members support that idea before. I have heard it suggested that, somehow, the Bill is undemocratic. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friends, I find that an extraordinary argument. That line of reasoning seems
to suggest that the only truly democratic system is the one that has evolved in this country-the one that we currently use. Such reasoning suggests that it is not possible to amend our system without somehow making it less democratic, even though it concentrates power in the Prime Minister's hands. The Bill will devolve the power to call a general election to the House, which is surely where it belongs.
If one were to follow that line of reasoning to its absurd conclusion, it would suggest that other western nations are somehow less democratic than ours, simply because they have democratic systems different from the one that we enjoy. In the United States Congressmen and women serve a two-year fixed term. The President serves a four-year fixed term. Senators serve six-year fixed terms. Clearly, that does not make the United States less democratic than we are simply because its system is different from ours. In France Members of the National Assembly are elected for five-year terms-the period that the Bill recommends. The President is also elected for a five-year term. The Senate is selected for a six-year term.
Dan Byles: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me. That was not my understanding, but I will bow to his superior knowledge. The French model has an interesting lesson to teach us about leaving the power to dissolve Parliament with the Executive, as opposed to the system that we are now considering. The President of France has the power to force dissolution early, but that is not supposed to be the norm; it is supposed to be used only in an emergency. It has been used only twice in an emergency, in 1962 and 1968, but it has been used three times for political advantage-in 1981, 1988 and 1997-thus clearly demonstrating that if we leave such a power in the hands of the Executive, it will inevitably be used for party political advantage.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: The Bill still seems to allow the Executive to do that, because they can force a vote of no confidence in themselves. Therefore, what we are achieving is simply changing the rules by which an early election can be called, not making any fundamental change to the constitution.
Dan Byles: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's typically pithy and interesting contribution. The point has been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and while my hon. Friend is technically correct, I find it hard to imagine that a Government who wished to call an early general election for their own political advantage would engineer a vote of no confidence that they would then lose on the Floor of the House, because that would be a disastrous start to a general election campaign.
When I first heard the suggestion, I thought that the electorate might consider that such a Government had behaved irresponsibly and therefore should not receive its support, but if the vote was a simple device for calling an early election that took only a few hours, the hon. Member for North East Somerset
(Jacob Rees-Mogg) has a point, in that the mechanism would just be another way of calling an early election, and the position would not be very different from where we are now.
Dan Byles: I will have to agree to disagree with hon. Members about this, but I do not think that a Government going into a general election would want to see headlines on the front pages of The Sun and other tabloids screaming, "Government falls after losing confidence vote in the House".
Mr Charles Walker: Surely any legislation could be avoided if Prime Ministers were to say at the start of their term whether they intended to run a five-year Parliament. If they backed out of that arrangement with the electorate after two and a half years, they would be judged accordingly, so why on earth do we need legislation?
Thomas Docherty: At the risk of rushing to the hon. Gentleman's rescue, I suspect that Labour Members tried that approach in the previous Parliament, and I do not recall it ending particularly well for the former Prime Minister.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Returning to the question of party political advantage, why does the hon. Gentleman think that the Government have chosen to specify a term of five years, rather than four, in the Bill?
Dan Byles: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman raises that question, because I would like to address that issue, which is one of the "straw man" arguments that opponents of the Bill regularly cite. Some who oppose the Bill argue against the whole principle of fixed-term Parliaments, while others claim to support that principle, but tackle the issue of whether the term should be five years or four.
What should we make of the term set out in the Bill? I think that I am safe in saying that the term length is a key sticking point for Labour Members who accept the principle of fixed-term Parliaments yet still cannot bring themselves to support the Bill. Many of them hang their hat on the fact that five-year, rather than four-year, terms are proposed.
If we are to consider that point in detail, it is important that we understand where we are and how we came to be here. At present the maximum length of a Parliament is five years-let us make no bones about that-and I do not recall any recent cries of anguish from Labour Members that the historical five-year Parliament is wrong. Indeed, that maximum limit was established under the Parliament Act 1911, so Labour Members have had a long time to express their opposition to
five-year Parliaments. The 1911 Act reduced the maximum length of a Parliament to five years from seven years by amending the Septennial Act 1715.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: May I remind my hon. Friend that the reduction from seven to five years took place because the House of Lords was no longer able to block legislation, and it was therefore thought right that things should be referred to the electorate within a reasonable time? In 1911 Members thought that that period was five years, and what they thought in 1911 is a jolly good thing to think in 2011.
Chris Bryant: But when our forefathers reached that view, they pointed out that although the maximum length of a Parliament would be five years, in practice the length would nearly always be four years.
Dan Byles: The hon. Gentleman has advanced that argument before, but I am aware that another interpretation is that if a Parliament lasts five years, only about four years' work gets done in practice, because Governments find it harder to get their business through in the final year as people are looking ahead to the next general election: in effect, the election campaign starts.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) likes to cite a figure of 3.7 years as the average length of a Parliament since 1945-he does not need to jump up and do so again now-but we need to tackle that statistic head on, because it is quite disingenuous. The statistic includes the three occasions on which a Parliament lasted for less than two years. No one would suggest that Parliaments of less than two years should be the norm-they occur in unusual circumstances-so it is misleading to include them in statistics to show the average length of a Parliament since 1945.
Kelvin Hopkins: Is not the great advantage of our present system that if a Government do not get a particularly big majority-such as in 1964 and February 1974-the arrangements are sufficiently flexible to allow us to hold another general election fairly soon afterwards so that one party or another can get a reasonable majority?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting argument, because he seems to suggest that any Government of the day should have such a strong majority that they
can bash their legislation through. I believe that Labour Members referred to that arrangement as an elective dictatorship when they were on the wrong side of such figures in the 1980s. In this day and age, if a Government need to be a bit more consensual and cleverer about getting their business through the House, it is considered to be a good thing. Do we really want to say that whenever a Government do not have a huge thumping majority we should have another election?
Dr McCrea: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Bill was born out of real conviction, and has nothing to do with political convenience designed to enable the Government to keep going over five years while we get out of the economic mess that we are in?
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) pointed out that three of the last five Parliaments lasted five years, and I was developing a point about the average length of post-1945 Parliaments. If the three failed Parliaments lasting less than two years are stripped out, the average length of a Parliament since 1945 has been more than four years. Since 1974 the lengths have been even greater, so there is a clear trend that Parliaments are lasting longer.
Thomas Docherty: I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's logic, but does he accept that, with the exception of the Parliament between 1987 and 1992, every Parliament since the 1950s that has lasted longer than four years has ended with the defeat of the governing party at a general election? Frankly, if the Prime Ministers in those Parliaments could have gone on longer they would have done, just to avoid the electorate.
Dan Byles: If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that Parliaments that last for five years are more likely to end with the defeat of the Government, he should be wholeheartedly embracing the coalition's plans to make this Parliament last for five years.
If there is something so constitutionally or democratically wrong with five-year Parliaments, why on earth did we have to endure the previous Government from 2005 until 2010? If five-year Parliaments are wrong in principle, as several Labour Members seem to suggest, why did not the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)-I apologise if I have not pronounced the right hon. Gentleman's constituency correctly, but as I have heard him speak in the House so rarely, I am not sure how to pronounce it-do the entire country a favour and call an election in 2009? We then could have started clearing up the mess of the worst financial deficit that this country has faced since the second world war a year earlier.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD):
Obviously there is a debate about whether the figure should be four years or five-although nobody has proposed a fixed-term Parliament of 3.7 years. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that while there is not necessarily a massive difference between four years and five years,
given the total and absolute mess that the country is in, having a term long enough to enable us to get out of that mess is a good idea?
Dan Byles: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's comments. One problem sometimes cited in relation to a democratic system such as ours is the tendency for Governments to take the short-term approach to fixing problems. If five years became the norm, that would help to create slightly more stable government, because Governments could look to the longer term when considering some of the difficult decisions that they might have to make, and not always be worried that they were only a few years from a general election.
It seems that five-year Parliaments are not a problem for Labour Members when it is their party that is clinging to power in the dying days of a Government, as was the case in 2009 and 2010. True to form, their principles changed the moment they found themselves in opposition. Now, sadly, they stand as obstacles to reform.
Dan Byles: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am extremely concerned about that point, and very eager to get on to the part of my speech in which I shall address it. However, I want to conclude the point, which I was pulled on to by interventions, about whether the term should be fixed at four years or five. I turn again to the conclusions and recommendations in the report on the Bill produced by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, which has already been quoted today by Labour Members. Recommendation 5 clearly states:
"Precedent gives no clear answer as to whether Parliaments should last four years or five."
"is an important point, but not one that we would wish to see obstruct the passage of the Bill through the House."
Thomas Docherty: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. My understanding of the procedures of the House is that Members need to refer directly to the proposals on the amendment paper, not rehash or rehearse a debate that took place previously, and at some length.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): First, it is for me to decide whether a Member is straying out of line. I would say to Mr Byles that he has to keep in order on new clause 4. He has drifted a little, but he keeps coming back to the matter of four years or five. I am sure that he has taken those remarks on board, and that we can continue.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have almost come to the end of my scene-setting remarks and will get into considerably more detail on
the amendments very shortly. Before I do, I want to refer to confidence votes and thresholds, which have already been mentioned this afternoon, including by Labour Members.
Although we are moving to a system of fixed-term Parliaments, it would clearly be unusual and wrong to put in place a system that did not allow for early elections, in one of two scenarios: if the confidence of the House could not be held by a party leader, or if there were an emergency of some sort, or another exceptional circumstance that required an early election in the national interest. I believe that the Bill as it stands, unamended-
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