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Mr Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should be relating his remarks to new clause 4 and the amendments grouped with it. We do not need to drift back to other subjects; we have gone beyond them. I remind him that we need to stick to the subject in hand.
I shall move on to new clause 4, which sets out new rules for the prorogation-I have as much trouble as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) with that word-of Parliament and would repeal the Prorogation Act 1867, which provides the power for Her Majesty to issue a proclamation for the prorogation of Parliament. I think I got that right.
As the House is aware, Prorogation marks the end of a parliamentary Session and is the formal name given to the period between the end of one Session of Parliament and the state opening of Parliament, which begins the next Session. The parliamentary Session may also be prorogued before Parliament is dissolved and a general election called.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the term "prorogation" is derived from the Roman concept of prorogatio. In the constitution of ancient Rome, prorogatio was the extension of a commander's imperium beyond the one-year term of his magistracy. Prorogatio developed as a legal procedure in response to Roman expansionism and militarisation.
In the context of the Westminster system, Prorogation or Dissolution of Parliament on the final day of the Session originally, according to the House of Lords Library, comprised four principal elements. First, the Speaker made a speech mainly concerned with the Subsidy Bill, which he had brought up from the Commons. This was followed by a speech from the Lord Chancellor or Lord Keeper replying to the points made by the Speaker and expressing thanks for the Subsidy Bill. Royal Assent was then given to the Bills passed by both Houses. Finally, the Lord Chancellor, in obedience to the sovereign's instructions, either prorogued or dissolved Parliament. The sovereign was customarily present on those occasions, and from the 17th century onwards, usually made the speech before Prorogation or Dissolution.
"In the early nineteenth century the prorogation was still accompanied with considerable ceremony. Thus in 1815 the Prince
Regent rode in the State Coach with a cavalry escort through St James's Park to the Palace of Westminster, and on his arrival was announced with a salute of cannon."
Mr Charles Walker: A lot of Labour Members are muttering at the history lesson that my hon. Friend is giving us, but is he not demonstrating how important it is in this matter to set the scene in an historical context, bearing in mind the fact that we are overturning 350 years of constitutional precedent?
The Bill is truly historic. That fact has been mentioned by numerous Members on both sides of the House, and to consider it in isolation-what it means to us now, rather than its place within the sweep of the history of our nation-would be wrong.
Chris Bryant: I agree that historical precedent is important, but I think the last time the monarch was involved directly in a speech made before Prorogation was 1851 or 1854, so we are going back some time. Since then there has been quite a transformation of the Prorogation system.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: It may interest the House to know that in the 1830s King William IV was going to come in person to prorogue Parliament, because that would bring all business to a stop and the Government did not like the business that was going on. I believe that, in the end, that turned out not to be necessary.
Dan Byles: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. Again he demonstrates why it is so important to maintain a thorough understanding of history if we are to understand exactly what our position in this place is in the context-
Chris Bryant: But in 1831 the row about Dissolution and Prorogation, which was all about the proposed Great Reform Act, led to a phenomenal row in this House between the Conservatives and the Whig Government, precisely on the basis of whose decision it should be that Prorogation should proceed.
Dan Byles: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for joining our discussion of the history pertaining to prorogation. I am glad that he has recognised that understanding the history of how we have got to where we are today is relevant to the discussion at hand. However, as the House is clearly not in the mood to discuss history today, and as I am aware that time is pressing, I want to move on and make a final point about amendment 9 before bringing my remarks to a conclusion.
"Once Parliament dissolves, Her Majesty may issue the proclamation summoning the new Parliament which may...
(a) appoint the day for the first meeting of the new Parliament".
"within 15 working days of the polling day".
The issue has already been discussed, but I am concerned that the amendment remains a little woolly. I question its purpose. What does a working day mean? Does that take into account religious holidays? There has already been a discussion about whether "working day" or "days" should be used. If that is an issue that the Opposition are concerned about, the term "working days" remains vague. Are bank holidays in other parts of the United Kingdom to be taken into account?
Is it not difficult to add "within 15 working days" in such specific terms, when "working days" could mean something entirely different in another part of the United Kingdom? In particular, why is Labour adamant about 15 working days? Is there any rationale or logic behind this number? Why not 14 days or 16 days? If we believe in evidence-based policy making in this place- [Interruption.] I detect some chuckling. Perhaps that is a dangerous thought. Evidence is not always welcome in this place. I have discovered that in previous debates. Perhaps when he sums up, the hon. Member for Rhondda will explain to us why 15 days is the magic number, not 14 or 16.
Thomas Docherty: I shall keep my remarks brief as I understand that the Prime Minister might be rushing back to make a statement to the House about the commercialisation of Downing street following the revelations from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) earlier this evening. I understand that the Liberal Democrats have a large campaign debt to pay off from Oldham East and Saddleworth.
May I gently tease colleagues on the Government Benches about the importance of referring to the United Kingdom when speaking about our nation state? I am sure all colleagues are aware that we are not just England or Britain; we are the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) helpfully referred to an earlier edition of "Erskine May" with reference to the shouting of the phrase "Shame!" from a sedentary position. It might help the House if I clarify that that applied up to the 19th edition of "Erskine May". Since then, I am advised, the term has been removed from "Erskine May" and is therefore, I imagine, legitimate.
Addressing new clause 4 and the associated amendments which, as "Erskine May" says, is the purpose of the debate, I shall tackle head-on the question whether the Opposition support the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. It is well known that we did not oppose Second Reading because we support the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. Our specific objections have been not just to the length-four or five years-but to some of the technical issues, which is why my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda and for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and others have tabled a
series of tidying-up amendments, as we would describe them, although I understand that not every hon. Member supports that principle.
Thomas Docherty: I do not like to leave the House in suspense, but on this one occasion hon. Members will have to wait and see how many of our amendments the Government are prepared to accept. Clearly, if the Minister accepts all the considered amendments that we have offered, we would be more than happy to give strong consideration to supporting Third Reading. I look forward to the Minister's reply shortly.
Thomas Docherty: The Minister is a thoroughly reasonable individual and I am sure he will not hold that statement against the rest of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition when he considers accepting our amendments.
As has been outlined previously-it would be inappropriate for me to go into great detail-we do not support the principle of a five-year term, for one practical reason that has not been touched on before, which is that it would take us into a clash with the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland elections that are scheduled for 2015.
As this is the first opportunity that the Minister has had to address the House on the matter since our Committee stage last year, I hope that he will be able to provide us with an update on the Government's plans for providing flexibility to the devolved Administrations to vary the dates of their elections. That is an extremely personal matter, as I shall explain. Perhaps he can tell the House what progress has been made in his consultation with the devolved Administrations on how any such alteration of the date of their elections would be achieved.
That is directly relevant to the issue under discussion because of the different number of days of Prorogation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda outlined, we have 25 days out for the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales and local elections, and just 17 days for this place. Let me give a simple local example to show why new clause 4 and others are so important to the date.
The differing number of days out will cause great confusion for parties and for the electorate in the 2015 election cycle. Part of my constituency is called the Dunfermline East Scottish Parliament seat. We have an MSP called Helen Eadie. Under the current rules-we still do not have firm proposals from the Government to alter the date-some two and a half weeks from polling day it would be legitimate for the Labour party, for example, to send out leaflets saying, "Vote Helen Eadie for your Member of the Scottish Parliament and vote Thomas Docherty for Member of Parliament." That is an unsatisfactory situation, and it is the reason why my hon. Friend and I are hoping to persuade the Minister tonight that he should change the length of Prorogation to 25 days to give us consistency across the whole of the United Kingdom.
There is also the question of how campaign finance will work. Members are painfully aware of the importance of ensuring that money is correctly apportioned to the long campaign, as it is commonly known, as opposed to the short campaign. Joint elections could give rise to difficult legal and technical disputes, as we saw in the case of the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), if sums of money are inadvertently misallocated. We therefore hope that the Government will accept our reasonable amendment.
Stephen Williams (Bristol West) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that such anomalies already exist and have existed for a long time? In England it is common for local government elections to be held on the same day as a parliamentary election. In Bristol those local government elections follow an entirely different timetable from the parliamentary election.
Thomas Docherty: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly sensible point, although I always caution hon. Members not to equate local elections in England to elections to the devolved Administrations. There is a substantive difference in the amount of spend that is allowed, and the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved elections use the same formulas for election spend. Perhaps it was an oversight of previous Governments not to address the valid point that the hon. Gentleman makes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has said, we are prepared to admit that we did not achieve all the legislation that we would like to have achieved, although if we were to ask the electorate what was the most important thing that we could have achieved, fixing that would not necessarily have been the top priority.
Reference has been made to the issue of Prime Ministers handing over power to their party or other parties. I think that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford misunderstood the difference between the House being adjourned and the House being prorogued. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, if the House is adjourned, existing legislation is not lost. If it prorogues, however, all legislation except public Bills falls and the legislative process must start again. That is why it is important that when the Parliamentary Resources Unit produces its next brief for Conservative Members it should spend some time getting those details correct.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, and several other Government Members, asked for examples of when Prime Ministers have succeeded leaders of their own party in that office. Obviously, Prime Ministers from both main parties have succeeded without general elections and without the need for the House to prorogue. That happened in 1957, 1963, 1976, 1990 and, of course, 2007.
Mr Walker: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that that is a perfectly healthy thing to happen? We do not elect Prime Ministers here; we elect parties and the Prime Minister is simply a Member of Parliament who comes from the victorious party or the coalition.
The hon. Gentleman makes a completely sensible point that goes to the heart of some of our arguments tonight. I will give a specific example,
because there has been some discussion of the fact that none of those cases was the direct result of a no-confidence vote. I remind the House that in 1940 the Government of the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, fell on what is largely accepted to have effectively been a vote of no confidence. It was a no-confidence vote by any other name. As the Parliamentary Secretary and the Deputy Leader of the House have accepted, under their proposals there could be a no-confidence motion that is not officially stamped as such. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, in 1940 the House did not prorogue. There was simply a change of Administration, and a short time later a coalition Government was formed involving all three parties. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Chamberlain Government, there was no coalition, and nor was the House prorogued.
Damian Collins: The hon. Gentleman is referring to the vote that followed the Norway debate, which the then Government won. However, they chose to change their leadership anyway as a result of the pressure of the vote. If circumstances were repeated and that was considered to be a confidence motion, it would not lead to the fall of the Government unless they chose to go.
Thomas Docherty: The hon. Gentleman highlights a crucial element, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle mentioned earlier-the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong-that was an Adjournment debate and was not even a formal resolution. That shows exactly the problem with the Bill as it is worded. It accepts the principle that there is no requirement for a formal vote of no confidence, but it does not accept those nuances that are part of the argument that, even if a Government win but do not meet a threshold that they have set beforehand, they have in effect fallen.
I can think of another example from our devolved Administrations. It was clear in 2001 that the then First Minister of Scotland, Henry McLeish, had lost the confidence of the Scottish Parliament and of his party. On the morning of the no-confidence debate he resigned as First Minister. That did not lead to the proroguing of the Scottish Parliament. It was an unprecedented event in the short history of the Scottish Parliament, but it survived. I hope that the Minister will, even at this late stage, take on board the fact that, as far as Oppositions ever are, we are seeking to be helpful to the Government, and certainly to the House, by providing some technical amendments to tidy up the Bill.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) referred to France and the United States. I was not aware that he was such a Francophile, but perhaps that is the result of the new coalition spirit. My understanding-I am happy to be corrected-is that the French President has the power to summarily dismiss the Prime Minister, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is not advocating that we adopt the same position in this country.
As the Minister knows, I am something of a bore on the subject of the United States' constitution. When the founding fathers of the United States were considering the peculiarities of their arrangements in the constitutional convention, one thing they desperately tried to avoid was over-lengthy terms of office. That is why they have elections every two years in their states. Votes for Congress, the Senate and the Presidency are staggered. Although I accept that the hon. Member for North Warwickshire is trying gallantly to defend the Minister's position, I fear that it is not a straightforward example to apply in this
case. I have spoken in favour of the amendments, but I am conscious that the Prime Minister will be rushing to the House and that the Minister wishes to reply, so I will end my comments.
Mr Heath: I do not think that the House has had as elegant and extensive a debate on Prorogation since the legislation was passed in 1867. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for opening the debate and to the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), for Foyle (Mark Durkan), for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for their contributions. I must say, however, that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife blotted his escutcheon as a political anorak by being four editions of Erskine May off the pace. To quote the 19th edition when we are now up to the 23rd is really beyond the pale.
Thomas Docherty: For the benefit of the Deputy Leader of the House and of the Official Report, my point was that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referred to the fact that up until the 19th edition of "Erskine May" the word "shame" was not allowed. My point was that we have moved on, and I have the 23rd edition in my hand.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford put his finger on what was wrong with the debate once we had prised him from his views on reasonably priced white wine, because he made the point, which I think was backed up by the hon. Member for Foyle, who mentioned an Urquhart-like Prime Minister, that many of the rather apocalyptic views of what an evil denizen of No. 10 might do seem to be founded on fancy, rather than on experience or expectation. We have been asked repeatedly to assume that every convention that applies has applied and will apply, whether the Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, or not. All those conventions would be summarily set aside.
It has been suggested that there would be confidence motions that no Member of the House, not even Mr Speaker, would recognise as confidence motions. It has been suggested that Prime Ministers who lose a vote of confidence might refuse to resign and remain in office despite the fact that they had lost the vote, or that if once they resign they might somehow give posthumous advice from beyond the political grave to Her Majesty to prorogue and therefore frustrate the intentions of the House and of the legislation. It is then suggested that Her Majesty, in a way that has never been the experience of any Member of this House or our predecessors, would be so forgetful of her constitutional duty that she would not ask another leader capable of commanding the confidence of the House to form a Government and end any temporary Prorogation.
I believe that those are fanciful concerns. I accept that they are theoretically possible, but I ask the House to consider whether any of those things have happened. Almost all of them are included in the conventions that cover our political system and our current constitutional
arrangements and will persist after the passage of the Bill. I am indebted to the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which someone casually looking at our debate might imagine had been critical of the provisions in this part of the Bill, but far from it. It examined the matter in some detail, and the witnesses were unanimous in their view. Paragraph 147 states:
"Professor Bradley agreed that such a possibility, while theoretically possible, 'would be very unsatisfactory and British politics would have sunk to a new low.'"
Professor Bogdanor was mentioned earlier, and the confidences of the tutorials between him and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) might or might not have been breached, but he suggested that the situation could reasonably
"be left to the discretion of a 'wise constitutional monarch'",
"who would not prorogue at the request of a Prime Minister who no longer had the confidence of the House."
"We agree that the risk of abuse of the power of prorogation is very small. We therefore conclude that Her Majesty's power to prorogue Parliament should remain."
We have heard from lots of people who profess to know what happened in Canada, but, just in case there are lingering concerns about the extraordinary situation of the Prorogation that apparently saved the Canadian Government, I note that the Lords Committee took evidence from an academic who probably knows a little more than any of us in this House about the Canadian political system. Professor Henry Milner, from l'université de Montréal, stated in his evidence:
"The Canadian case was unique because prorogation saved the government, which it normally should not. ... [The] circumstances [were] so unusual that you could not imagine them. I would have to give you each of the steps in the Canadian case, all of which were unlikely and all of which fitted together. Frankly, I would not worry about it."
On the proposed changes before us, I shall deal, first, with new clause 4, tabled by the hon. Member for Rhondda, and the consequential amendments 2, 3 and 4, which would give the House a new and exclusive power to prorogue Parliament. Most contributors to the debate were clear about this, but we need to make a clear distinction between Dissolution and Prorogation, because they are very different things, and the Government believe it important that the Bill provides the House with the power to decide when there should be a Dissolution of Parliament.
It is legitimate to give the House control over early Dissolution, because that will take place only in circumstances where the Government of the day have lost the confidence of the House and can therefore no longer lead the country effectively, or where a two-thirds majority of elected MPs has passed a motion calling for an early election. Those are matters directly concerned with the choice of Government and the election of Members, and it is right that this elected House should have primacy.
Prorogation, however, is a different matter. Hon. Members will know that it is a mechanism to bring to an end a Session of Parliament. It determines, subject to the carry-over procedure, when Bills must have completed their passage through both Houses so that they become law. That relates to the point that several hon. Members made, whereby, if we prorogue while Bills are still in process, they are lost. Sometimes, an incoming Government will wish that; sometimes, they will not, particularly if they are of a similar political complexion to the previous Administration.
The hon. Gentleman's new clause places no obligation to consult or agree with the other place on the timing or length of Prorogation, even though it affects that House equally. The new clause would therefore give this House a controlling hand over the conduct of business in the other place by providing us with the power to dictate when the other House must have completed its business. That would be a significant departure from the current situation in the wash-up, and some might view it as an unwelcome extension of this House's powers.
As I said in earlier debates, through this Bill the Government seek to make only those changes to the constitution necessary to facilitate the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. The proposed new clause seems to fall wide of that intention.
I have to draw attention to a few technical deficiencies. I am always slightly loth to do so, as Members often wish to raise and debate a principle and the drafting falls short of their intention, but we need to examine the matter, because we are on Report. First, there is some ambiguity about where the actual power of Prorogation would lie.
"The Speaker of the House of Commons shall not make such a declaration unless the House of Commons has passed a resolution directing him to do so on or before a specific date and time."
So, the House would clearly direct the Speaker. In proposed new subsection (4), however, the Speaker may vary the period of Prorogation by an unlimited number of days, apparently without a direction from the House.
There is no mechanism to specify how the Speaker might make such a declaration when the House is not sitting on account of its having been prorogued. That is particularly important, given that the new clause states that the Speaker may vary the date of Prorogation "to an earlier...day," presumably to provide for the option of recalling Parliament when it is prorogued. We can only assume, however, that the new clause intends the Speaker to have the power to decide unilaterally when Parliament may return from a period of Prorogation, and, if it is intended that the Speaker should do so on advice, the new clause does not make it clear on whose advice that would be. If the intention is that the House must direct the Speaker when varying the period of Prorogation, the proposed system will not allow that to happen, and that seems to be inconsistent with the desire to place the power relating to Prorogation with a decision of the House itself.
Further, it is not clear whether proposed new subsection (3) is intended to replace or supplement the existing Prorogation announcement that is made to both Houses and read in the other place with this House in attendance. I accept that that is not an insuperable
barrier to the new clause, and we have heard differing views on the value of the Prorogation ceremony: the hon. Member for Rhondda rather likes it; the hon. Member for Foyle feels that bicorn hats are not his style. Nevertheless, that is part of our constitutional settlement and part of the procedures of the House, and a lot of people quite like to wander down the corridor to hear the Prorogation ceremony and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda says from a sedentary position, a little Norman French-which we hear so little of nowadays.
Thomas Docherty: I have listened attentively to the Minister's remarks. Notwithstanding his reluctance to support our reasoned amendment, will he outline where he has got to, therefore, in discussions with the devolved Administrations about how the elections will work, and outline when we will see proposed legislation? Clearly, there is a significant knock-on effect for devolved elections.
Mr Heath: I would do so, but that would impinge on the following group of amendments, and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), will be able to respond to that point during the debate about them. It would be unwise for me to leap ahead, so, although I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's point, I hope that he accepts my response.
I shall address other issues that have been raised in relation to the Prime Minister's existing power to prorogue Parliament, because, as I stressed at the beginning of my response and stress again, many of the arguments are based on the theoretical mischief that, somehow, a Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament for his or her own purposes, without accepting the fact that they can do so equally today. They can do so, as I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Rhondda, to prevent a vote of confidence that they feel likely to lose. So, with the Bill we are not strengthening the hand of the Prime Minister; far from it. We are taking away one critical element, but Prorogation will remain exactly as it is.
The conventions of this House are sufficiently strong. For instance, there is no obligation in law for the business managers to find time to debate an Opposition motion of no confidence, but the strong convention is that time will always be found for that purpose, because it is a convention that has worked well over the years. I do not believe that there is any reason why it should not work well in the future. I cannot accept that the artificial process that has been described is a real danger.
Let us consider the circumstances. There are two basic scenarios during the 14-day period in the Bill. In the first, political factors mean that a no-confidence motion passes, and there is no obvious alternative Government, so the Prime Minister who has lost the confidence of the House remains in place to fight the election. There would be no need, or indeed point, for the Prime Minister to prorogue the House. The alternative is that the Prime Minister resigns after the no-confidence motion and Her Majesty appoints a new Prime Minister. Even if the new Prime Minister took office and found the House prorogued, he or she would, under the current
arrangements, ask the Queen to recall Parliament. Although I acknowledge the principle behind new clause 4 and amendments 2, 3 and 4, I hope that I have demonstrated that it would be unwise and unnecessary to make them.
On amendment 9, clause 3(4) specifically preserves Her Majesty's power to set the first day for the meeting of a new Parliament by royal proclamation. As it stands, the date of the first meeting of a new Parliament is set by proclamation and is usually agreed with the House authorities and the palace. The date is conventionally set out in the proclamation that dissolves the old Parliament. The Bill retains as much as possible of that approach by providing for the Queen to issue the proclamation summoning the new Parliament once the old Parliament has dissolved, rather than after the new Parliament has been elected. Following the last election, a date was chosen that allowed sufficient time for the large number of new Members to be inducted. It is important that such flexibility is preserved.
The purpose of amendment 9 appears to be to require Her Majesty to set a date for the first meeting of a Parliament that is within 15 working days of the general election. Again, I have a quibble over drafting, because it is not entirely clear whether the intention behind the amendment is that Her Majesty should issue the proclamation within 15 working days, or whether the first meeting of Parliament should take place within 15 working days. The hon. Member for Rhondda made it clear that his intention was the latter, but that is not clear in the drafting of the amendment. Our primary purpose in the Bill has been to establish fixed terms and set out the procedures for initiating an early election. We have made only the necessary consequential changes to the Queen's powers. I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman not to press amendment 9.
Amendments 14 and 15, which were tabled by the hon. Member for Foyle, suggest that if the House votes for an early Dissolution under clause 2, it should be able to choose the date of the ensuing general election. The Bill provides that if there is to be an early general election, the date will be set by Her Majesty the Queen in a royal proclamation on the advice of the Prime Minister. That is to ensure that an appropriate date can be found, for instance so that the poll can be held on a Thursday, as has become standard practice.
Although amendment 14 provides that the date of an early general election would be set out in the Speaker's certificate, that would be the case only if the House of Commons had specified such a date in the Dissolution motion. That is a genuine concern with the amendment because a two-thirds majority is required to agree that there should be an early Dissolution. Under the amendment, two thirds of the House would also have to agree to the date of the election. It is quite possible that Members would agree to the one proposition and not the other. Alternative dates and amendments could therefore be tabled. That would muddy the water of what should be a clear-cut process. That is a concern about the operation of the Bill, if it is enacted, which perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not considered.
Amendment 14 would make it optional, not obligatory, that a date be specified. If the House votes a year or more in advance of the election, why
should the date not be fixed then, rather than it being left up to the Prime Minister? Under the Bill, the House, by a two-thirds majority, would be handing a power back to the Prime Minister that the Prime Minister says he wants to give up.
Mr Heath: I do not dismiss the hon. Gentleman's arguments. I understand what he is saying. However, in purely practical terms, it is difficult for the House to receive advice from any quarter on what would be an appropriate date. The House as a whole would find it difficult to take the sort of advice that the Prime Minister, as an individual, could easily assemble. In the politically charged atmosphere of a vote of no confidence, it is hard to understand- [ Interruption. ] Sorry, not a vote of no confidence. I could see what the hon. Member for Foyle was thinking. In the consideration of an early election, it would be even more difficult to set.
There are always technical issues in establishing the most appropriate date for a general election, and the considerations of all parts of the United Kingdom must be taken into account. I know that the hon. Gentleman has had mixed experiences, but he knows that it is the experience of the devolved Administrations that it is useful in the circumstances that have been suggested for an individual to have this responsibility. Giving it to the House as a whole would be technically difficult, without a significant advance in the arrangements being achieved.
I move on to amendment 8, which the hon. Member for Rhondda said "makes things tidy", in the words of his valet. I am sure that it would, and I have some sympathy with his argument. The amendment would lengthen the election timetable by requiring Parliament to dissolve 25 working days before polling day, rather than 17. The Government recognise that remaking the election timetable is a complex matter that we should consider. However, it cannot be done simply by edict and without the background work.
The Electoral Commission supports the idea, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He did not make a great deal of that in his speech, but I know that he knows the background material. The commission has suggested that an extension to the electoral timetable would support participation by overseas and service voters, and better support the effective administration of elections. We agree that it is an important issue, and the Deputy Prime Minister has indicated to the commission that there is merit in exploring a change to the timetable. However, as the commission has pointed out, it would require a thorough review to ensure that any change is consistent with the arrangements for elections across the piece.
A host of practical issues and consequential complexities must be considered. We will have to form a balanced judgment on where particular milestones would best fall within an extended election timetable. For example, there might be competing views about the deadline for nominations, and we would have to work to find the most effective compromise. Another crucial milestone is the deadline for registering to vote, which, although not part of the timetable structure, is inextricable from it. That illustrates that such changes to the timetable cannot be made in isolation. As part of the process, we would need to consider the current deadlines for postal and proxy vote applications. Additionally, different elections
across the UK run to different timetables and moving to 25 days in Westminster would not, of itself, generate consistency.
As I have said, the Government agree that this is an important issue and we will set out our proposals on the timetable in due course. We have held initial discussions with the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators to identify points to address. It should be noted that the Bill already greatly enhances the ability of administrators and candidates to plan ahead, because we will know when general elections will happen, usually at least five years in advance. The various people involved in running elections will be able to factor that into their thinking and organisation. Even if the provisions for an early election were engaged, the Bill sets out clearly the steps from the Dissolution motion or no-confidence motion to the Dissolution of Parliament, and those steps will be conducted in the public eye. There will be no more snap elections, and I believe that electoral administrators and candidates can be glad about that.
The final reason for asking the hon. Member for Rhondda not to pursue amendment 8, despite its merit and the fact that the issue needs to be considered, is that the Bill is not the right place to amend the election timetable. The Bill is about fixing the date of the poll, not wholesale electoral reform, as we have said repeatedly. Governments are constantly urged by everyone to have focused legislation that deals with specific objects. This is just such a piece of focused legislation and I do not want to cloud the simple but constitutionally significant issue of fixing parliamentary terms with other electoral issues.
Having said that, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who have tabled amendments will not press them to a vote, so that we can continue with the debate on the final group of amendments.
Chris Bryant: I note that the Prime Minister's drinks party has clearly ended, because the whole Conservative party has gathered in the Chamber. We heard earlier that the Prime Minister had been serving reasonably priced drinks, so I hope that all hon. Members paid for them.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) accused me of being far too tidy. Nobody has ever accused me of that before. He thinks that trying to tidy up legislation is a socialist endeavour, but surely that is what we do. The constant process that we are engaged in-the constant iteration of legislation-means looking at the common law and regularly updating it in statute. For instance, I do not know whether he knows what a brothel is, but- [ Interruption. ] I see from his face that he does. In common law, the definition of a brothel is a place frequented by men to perform lewd homosexual practices, including dancing, so sometimes it is necessary to correct the common law. Some of what we are doing in this Bill is putting convention and common law into statute. The danger is that we will end up with a series of unintended consequences, and that is what I want to tidy up.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted much less electioneering and campaigning, which is why he wanted shorter election campaigns-in a lighter moment he
said that he wanted an eight or 12-day election campaign. I would just say to him again that there would be great advantages in having a 25-day election campaign. It would mirror what happens in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local elections, and would allow service voters, who regularly try to vote, but whose votes do not arrive in the post in time, to have their votes counted. I very much hope that we will be able to move forward on that.
I welcome what the Deputy Leader of the House said about the measure just now, although I have never heard a Minister say at the Dispatch Box about an amendment, "This is the right Bill to do it in"-it is always another place where it should be done. However, I am afraid that we are going to hold his feet to the fire on this occasion.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles), who holds the record in the "Guinness World Records" for rowing across the Atlantic, took us through a fair amount of British history. He effectively argued for longer and longer Parliaments. What I would say to him-and to all Government Members-is that the provisions in the Bill will mean that this Parliament is the longest Parliament in the world, as was confirmed by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) this evening. The fixed term of five years, plus the additional provision of another two months, will make it the longest in the world. There will be fewer elections because of what this Bill will do. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming), who is not in his place, said that the current special circumstances made that all the more important. That is the charge that every dictator has always advanced: that one should fix the constitution to meet the special circumstances of the day.
The hon. Member for North Warwickshire asked why we had specified 15 working days, and also asked what the definition of a working day was. If he had actually read the Bill, he would see that clause 3(5) says:
The Deputy Leader of the House-these will be my concluding remarks-said that we had created a demon in people's eyes, with this image of an evil denizen living at No. 10. Some of us are not all that impressed by the present denizen of No. 10. However, when we start putting into statute some of the elements of the conventions that have applied in this House across the centuries, there is a danger that people will use their powers inappropriately. I believe that the right to sit and the right not to sit should be determined not by the Crown, the Prime Minister or the Government of the day, but by this House. I therefore urge hon. Members to support our new clause, which has been tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
'(1) Section 2 expires when the Parliament summoned to meet in May 2010 dissolves.
(2) In the course of the first month of the day of first meeting of any Parliament after the expiry of section 2 as a result of subsection (1) above, the Minister may by order bring the section back into force for the remainder of that Parliament.
(3) An order made under subsection (2) above is to be made by statutory instrument and shall not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of the House of Commons.
(4) If no order has been made under subsection (2) above, an early parliamentary general election is to take place only if the House has passed a motion that there should be an early parliamentary general election.
(5) The polling day for an early parliamentary general election under subsection (4) above is to be the day appointed by Her Majesty by proclamation on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
(6) If a polling day is appointed under subsection (5) above, the reference in section 1(4) to the polling day for a parliamentary general election appointed under section 2(6) shall be construed as if referring to a day appointed under subsection (5) above.'.- (Mr Cash.)
'save as provided for by subsection (2A) below.
(2A) If a day before 7 May 2015 has been appointed under section 2(6) as the polling day for an early parliamentary general election, the polling day for the subsequent parliamentary general election shall not be 7 May 2015, but shall instead be set by reference to subsections (3) and (4) below.'.
', no notice being taken of any early parliamentary general election as provided for in section 2.'.
I hope not to detain the House for too long. Amendment 1 is a probing amendment, which the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed should be tabled to ensure that the Bill was technically sound. Clause 1(3) and (4) provide for the clock to be reset if an early general election is called, and for the date of the next scheduled general election to be shifted to four to five years after that early election. Those provisions, however, do not seem to apply to the next general election, which is scheduled to take place on 7 May 2015. The Bill seems to require an election to be held on 7 May 2015 even if an early election has been held before that date, perhaps only a few months before-although I suppose that depends on how it is interpreted. The Government have made clear their policy that the clock should be reset each time there is an early general election, and I do not suppose that they mean to make an exception for 2015.
I appreciate that the Government have already announced that the next general election will be held on 7 May 2015 and not before. Can the Minister reassure us that, in the unlikely event of an early general election during the current Parliament, the Bill as it stands would not require a further election to be held on 7 May 2015? If he cannot give that reassurance, is he prepared to accept the amendment? That would make it crystal clear that if an early election took place before May 2015, the date of the next election would be four to five years later, not in May 2015.
Chris Bryant: It is a great delight to see the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). It is always odd when constituencies contain bits of the west and bits of the south and bits of the north, all aligned with each other. May I just notify the hon. Gentleman that I shall be in his constituency on Friday evening? Now I have got that out of the way. He will be glad to know that I shall be addressing a Labour party meeting-although I am sure he will be welcome to come along if he wishes.
As for the hon. Gentleman's argument about amendment 1, I entirely agree with him that the drafting of the Bill is deficient in this regard. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has done a remarkable piece of work in the short time it was given to do its work, and I am glad it has been able to come up with this amendment. I had worried that there was not going to be a Committee member to move it, because neither of the two Committee members whose names are attached to it are present this evening, which is a shame.
I also want to speak to amendments 10 and 11 in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Lord Chancellor my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), and myself. Amendment 10 would amend clause 1 by adding that "no notice" should be
"taken of any early parliamentary general election as provided for in section 2."
Ignoring for a moment the fact that one of our primary objections to the Bill is that it refers to five-year Parliaments rather than four-year Parliaments, which we would prefer, we none the less subscribe to the belief
that it is good for parliamentary democracy to have an expectation about when the next general election will be, and for Parliaments to be for fixed terms, especially because our broader electoral system is now analogous to that of the United States of America in that we have local elections on a four-year cycle, Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland on a four-year cycle and the parliamentary elections in Scotland on a four-year cycle. We know the dates when they will take place in perpetuity into the future, so it makes sense to have the same pattern and rhythm in elections to this House. That is why we have advanced this amendment, which, in essence, would mean that we would not start the clock again. Consequently, we would know whether elections were going to coincide with certain local elections or elections for the devolved Administrations. That is a better model than the slightly haphazard manner in which we may proceed if the Bill proceeds unamended in this respect.
There is one other advantage. The Government have written to the devolved Administrations about the fact that the next general election would coincide with their elections in 2015 unless the Prime Minister brings our general election forward by two months or delays it by two months, and the Minister has written asking them whether they think it would be better to have a new power added giving them the right to delay their elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by six months. I have spoken to various Members of the Welsh Assembly, including the First Minister, and he is clear that it would be wrong suddenly to change the date of the Welsh Assembly elections because Parliament had decided that its elections were to be at a certain point in 2015, thereby either prolonging the next Welsh Assembly by six months or shortening the one thereafter by six months. Moreover, if we are deciding that the best time of the year to have elections is the first Thursday in May, it would seem wrong suddenly to decide that everyone else should have to get out of the way and have their elections in November. Also, just shunting the devolved Administrations' elections away by a month or two months is likely to harm those elections substantially, because I do not think that voters want to come out very regularly, within a month or two of another general election.
Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): It is not just that it is a burden on the electorate to ask them to come out and vote twice in a short period. One of our concerns about the local government and Assembly elections that will be taking place in Northern Ireland-as well as the referendum-is that the campaigns will become blurred and people will focus less on some of them and more on others.
Chris Bryant: I think that is absolutely right, and I fear that the likely outcome of that is that most people will end up voting purely and simply according to party, rather than according to the candidate, which would be a damaging direction of travel for British democracy. We would prefer deliberately to avoid a coincidence of the Scottish Parliament elections with the general election, and we think that the best way of doing so is by having a four-year fixed-term for this Parliament and by not restarting the clock. We would thus not have constant uncertainty about the year of the general election.
Dr McCrea: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Electoral Commission has written to the Deputy Prime Minister on this issue, and the right of the devolved Administrations to lengthen the period by six months? It letter states:
"the Commission believes that there remains a clear need for...research to be carried out"-
"to ensure there is a robust evidence base to inform decisions about the timing of elections in 2015."
Chris Bryant: Yes, I am aware of that and I completely agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Government cannot just pull at individual strings of the constitutional settlement, because we will just end up unravelling the whole jumper: that is the law of unintended consequences, which we are in danger of having thrust upon us.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I agree with the hon. Gentleman that four years seems to be the normal cycle. Does he agree that if the Government are intent on pushing ahead with a five-year fixed term, the natural thing to do would be to do the same thing with the cycle for the National Assembly for Wales, and change its term to five years?
Chris Bryant: I suppose it would, but I am not in favour of five-year terms. Political events change at a dramatic pace these days and a five-year term would not meet that requirement. I suspect that such an arrangement would mean that Governments both here and in the devolved Administrations would more regularly be at the fag-end of their sense of having a mandate, and a four-year provision would be a much better. I am sure that we shall return to this matter on Third Reading.
I have no desire to delay the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I think that I have made my point. In essence, it is that we believe it would be better to have a four-year fixed-term Parliament, because that would help us to avoid the elections for the devolved Administrations coinciding with the general election. We need change only one other measure to make sure that that never happens; we need to provide that we do not start the clock again when there has been an early general election. The Government's intention is to try to make us fall into the rhythm of fixed-term Parliaments and not have lots of early general elections, and such a provision would give people an added incentive not to seek an early general election because they would know that they would then have only a short Parliament before the next general election, which would fall on the previously arranged date. Without any further do, I shall conclude and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
The amendments relate to the date of the election and it is worth touching on the points that a number of hon. Members have made about the coincidence of the proposed date of 7 May 2015 with the date of the devolved elections. It is worth saying, as we said in Committee, that it is entirely possible and, indeed, likely that, regardless of whether or not this Bill was introduced, the UK general election could have been held on the same day as those devolved elections if this Parliament had run for five years. In some sense, the Bill provides
an opportunity, because it has highlighted and crystallised that fact at an early stage, when we have the chance to debate the consequences and do something about it.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, and as we discussed in Committee, I wrote to all the party leaders in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament proposing to give their Assembly or Parliament the power to extend its term by up to six months. That was to go alongside the existing power to shorten the term by six months to provide a window of a year in which it could vary the date of the election to avoid that once-in-20-year coincidence with the Westminster election.
"need for a comprehensive research study on the implications of combining elections"
Mr Harper: I heard very clearly what the hon. Gentleman said in his intervention on the hon. Member for Rhondda, and I was going to refer to that point anyway. Let me finish this part of my speech and I shall come on to that.
I wrote to the party leaders. They wrote back and I think it is fair to say that they were underwhelmed by the proposal to give the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament the opportunity to extend their term by six months to provide that one-year window. For that reason, the Government did not table an amendment on Report, as we had suggested that we might if the responses were more positive. The party leaders and Presiding Officers raised some other points, some of which the hon. Member for Rhondda has raised today, about alternatives. We are considering them and will write back to the party leaders as well as keeping the Opposition and the House informed. For the benefit of Members, I should say that copies of the letters that I have written have been placed in the Library of the House today.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful for the tone in which the Minister is responding to this part of the debate. For his information, his office sent me a letter by e-mail today, apparently responding to a letter I sent him on 21 December. It was in fact a letter about something completely different, so if he could arrange for the actual letter to be sent to me, I would be grateful.
Mr Harper: I replied to a letter that the hon. Gentleman sent to me. He might find-I can absolutely get him a copy-that the letter about the letter to the party leaders went to the shadow Secretary of State's office today. I can make sure that the hon. Gentleman gets a copy directly and, as I said, I placed copies of those letters in the Library of the House.
The Electoral Commission's letter made some sensible points about considering all the issues raised by combination. It seems to me that there are two kinds of issues: first, the practical delivery of elections-how we
make the mechanics run-and; secondly, making combination easier. That is not just related to the devolved elections and those for the Westminster Parliament. The fact is that whether or not one agrees with the Government's proposals, we are proposing elected police commissioners and some elected mayors, so there will be more elections and more of them will take place on the same day. Therefore, we need to make that easier. Another issue that came up in the debate, which is serious and valid, concerns the extent to which media coverage and so on means that two different conversations can be going on at the same time for different elections. That will obviously engage the political parties, broadcasters and people more widely.
The Electoral Commission's suggestion is very good, but it has not taken place to date. The Government think there is some support for it, but given where we are in the timetable and given that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland wanted to consider the experience of the combined elections in Northern Ireland this year, it might be a good idea to consider what happens with the referendum and elections in May-in only a few months' time-and use that experience to kick off some project along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) once the Government have considered the suggestions from the party leaders. That might give us a possible route forward.
Chris Bryant: The Minister referred to elected police commissioners and more directly elected mayors. Will he confirm that they will all also be on four-year terms, rather than five-year terms? If he wanted to provide a little more tidiness-I can see him smiling, because he knows how this sentence will end-he could change this five-year fixed-term Parliament to a four-year Parliament, even if he only did it for after 2015.
Mr Harper: Not representing a valleys constituency, I do not have the same urge for tidiness as the hon. Gentleman. I am happy with our relatively untidy constitutional settlement. I have no problem with that at all.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Minister has said that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will monitor what happens with the elections that will take place this year. After he has done that, will there be close co-operation and consultation with the parties and the Electoral Commission to find the correct way of proceeding and learning from anything that goes wrong? Is that the suggestion?
Mr Harper: Yes, I have discussed this with my right hon. Friend and he intends, as we have discussed in Committee and announced to the House, to consider the experience from this year. We want to work with all the parties in Northern Ireland, just as I have written to all the party leaders in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, to reach some agreement on what works well, what does not work and what needs to change. That will be very much on a cross-party basis.
Mr Harper: I will not start picking bits out of individual letters, but, given our debates in the House about preferences for four or five years, it is interesting that there have been suggestions from party leaders about moving the devolved Assemblies on to a five-year cycle. Given what has been said here and that the devolved Assemblies and Parliament were set up after considerable debate and have been on a settled model for some time, that would be a big jump and quite a change to the constitutional settlement.
Naomi Long: The Minister has talked about considering the context of the forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections coinciding with the referendum campaign, but a better comparison would be the impact on the local government election campaign, in which the same range of parties will fight on very different issues. We need to consider this issue in that important context because the referendum campaign will not be party political in that sense and so is not directly comparable to running party political campaigns at the same time. The issue with running a general election campaign alongside an Assembly election campaign in Northern Ireland is that media coverage will focus on the general election campaign in a UK context, looking at parties that do not garner votes in the Northern Ireland context.
Mr Harper: The hon. Lady makes a good point. When the Deputy Prime Minister and I introduced the Bill, we said that a UK general election coinciding with a devolved legislature election would be qualitatively different from a referendum campaign coinciding with a devolved legislature election for the very reason that the hon. Lady says-there would be a narrative and a debate going on and there would be questions about whether the media, newspapers and broadcasters would fairly cover both parts of the debate and whether the public could therefore take properly informed decisions in both elections. We need to consider that issue with all the parties and broadcasters and see whether there are ways around it.
Let me address amendment 1, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) moved on behalf of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform. The intention of the amendment is to clarify that, in the event of an early general election-before 7 May-under subsection (1) or (2) of clause 2, the general election specified in clause 1(2) would not take place, but the Bill already makes it clear that the general election of 7 May 2015 would take place only if no intervening early general elections under the procedures in clause 2 had occurred. Clause 1 sets the date for the first scheduled general election, "subject to" clause 2-those words appear in the first subsection of the Bill's first clause. If there were an early general election, it would replace the election of 7 May. The Select Committee has been very helpful in scrutinising the Bill and its amendments have brought about some good debates. Amendment 1 is good in that it has enabled this debate, but it is not necessary because the Bill is already clear.
Amendments 10 and 11, which the hon. Member for Rhondda spoke to, would mean that the parliamentary term following an early general election would last only for the remainder of the previously scheduled term. To use a phrase that the Committee used in its report, it would keep the clock ticking on the five years whether
there was an early general election or not. There has been quite a lot of speculation among academics and others on whether that would act as a disincentive for a Government or strong Opposition to engineer an early general election because a new Government would get a term of perhaps only a few months. We did think about that, and we debated it in Committee. The flip side to that is that there is an election in which a Government get elected, perhaps with a significant majority, quickly followed by another election. That explains the Government's choice of wording.
There is a technical problem with the amendments. An early election could take place just before the scheduled election but the scheduled election would still be held. The rules for the devolved assemblies provide a window, so that if the early election takes place very close to the scheduled election, the scheduled election does not take place. If the early election is more than six months before, the scheduled election still takes place. As the amendments are drafted, there could be an election only weeks before the scheduled election, and the scheduled election would still have to be held. That would not make a great deal of sense.
Chris Bryant: The Minister is right; that would be the eventuality. However, I think that would fly in the face of what in practice would happen politically, because some six to nine months before a general election people would choose not to bother to militate for an early general election-they would just accept that the next general election was coming. I understood that that was what the Minister was trying to achieve-fixed-term Parliaments.
Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman was hypothetically pessimistic earlier. Now he takes the opposite approach: he is being hypothetically optimistic. The Government's view was that we could have that early general election and the Government could be returned with a large majority, and we think the public would expect that Government to govern.
Interestingly, the Constitution Committee in the other place agreed with the Government's approach. Its report concludes that a newly elected Government should have a full term of office, and that the Government would present its programme to Parliament through the Queen's Speech, which, of course, is traditionally considered to be a test of confidence. We think that in that situation the Government should have the right to carry out their programme for the full five years, and it would make little sense to ask the voters to go back to the polls when they had sent out a clear message.
I accept that that is a debatable point-we had a significant debate in Committee-but let us look at it from the public's end of the telescope rather than our own. If we were to have an early general election, because the Government had lost a confidence vote or because there had been a general sense that we should have an early general election, it would seem a little ridiculous if the public had made a clear choice, sent a Government into office with a significant majority, and then a few months later were back doing it all over again.
I think that, on balance, the Government's decision and the current drafting of the Bill make sense. I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and
South Pembrokeshire, on behalf of the Select Committee, to withdraw his amendment 1 and I urge the hon. Member for Rhondda, just for once, to think about whether he really wants to press amendments 10 and 11 and potentially force the British people to undergo election after election in close succession-something which neither he nor I would want to achieve.
I am grateful to Members who have taken part in debates on the Bill, in particular the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who sadly is not in his place, and members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, who have been forensic in their scrutiny.
The Bill's reforms are an essential part of the Government's drive to modernise Parliament. Currently, a Prime Minister can, effectively, call an election on a whim-a situation that my colleague and friend, the late Lord Holme of Cheltenham, once described as a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach the track with his or her running shoes in one hand and the starting pistol in the other. Something as important as the timing of a general election must not be determined by the whims of Prime Ministers and the self-interest of political parties. I believe that all parties agree on that. The Bill proposes the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments, bringing a new stability to our political system and, crucially, ensuring that when Parliament does dissolve early, that is a matter for this House.
Debate on the Bill has been vigorous. That is why we allowed extra time in Committee. While we may not see eye to eye with colleagues on the Opposition Benches on every detail, throughout the debates there was broad agreement on what it seeks to achieve.
Let me turn briefly to some of the issues that have attracted most attention. First, on early dissolution, the Bill provides that Parliament will be dissolved early only if at least two thirds of MPs vote for dissolution or if a Government are unable to secure the confidence of the House of Commons within 14 days of a no-confidence vote-passed on a simple majority, exactly as is provided for right now.
Those arrangements are complementary. They are workable. Most importantly, they strengthen the power of Parliament to hold Government to account. We are
proposing a new power for the House to vote for an early dissolution, as well as, for the first time, giving legal effect to the existing procedures for a vote of no confidence. I ask Members to note that the Constitution Committee in the other place has endorsed those two mechanisms for triggering an early election.
The Government do not accept the concern that the new right to dissolve Parliament will undermine this House's exclusive cognisance. Such an important constitutional innovation absolutely should be laid down in statute, but we are confident that the courts will continue to regard matters certified by the Speaker as relating to proceedings in Parliament, which are, in turn, protected by the Bill of Rights. I was delighted that the Constitution Committee-a Committee that includes distinguished parliamentarians and lawyers-agreed with the Government's assessment of the Bill's interaction with parliamentary privilege.
On the length of Parliaments, we have looked into the suggestion that four years is preferable to five. It is true that this is not an exact science. It is a question of judgment, but, all the arguments considered, we remain of the strong view that five years, the current maximum and more recently the norm, will encourage the stability and long-term perspective that British politics too often lacks.
Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Can the Deputy Prime Minister give us one example in which he or another leading member of the Liberal Democrats before May last year was in favour of a five-year fixed-term Parliament?
The Deputy Prime Minister: We were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments above and beyond all else, and always accepted that the issue of whether it was four years or five years was a matter of judgment, as I said. Five years, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is the maximum term available to us already, and of the last five Parliaments three stretched to five years, including the last Parliament under a Labour Government.
Austin Mitchell: But the judgment of the Liberal party was that four years was the appropriate length of a Parliament. That is what was in the Liberals' manifesto and what they put up to the Labour side in the coalition negotiations. They asked for four years and election by single transferable vote. Why suddenly switch to five?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As I said, the principle of a fixed-term Parliament was by far the most important thing. Whether that is four or five years-some people argue for five, some argue for four-might divide opinion and might create synthetic objections from those on the Labour Benches, but it is none the less secondary to the principle of giving the House greater power over the Executive. That is what the Bill establishes. Personally, I would not fetishise about 12 months one way or another in a term of four or five years. We have decided in the coalition agreement and as a Government- [Interruption.] It is a decision from the Government. I know that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) finds it deeply uncomfortable not to be in government. He is not. We are, and we have decided five years.
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab):
One of the consequences of the decision to have a five-year term in the first instance will be the coincidence of the date of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern
Ireland Assembly elections in 2015. In the debate in Committee, we were advised by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that there would be discussions with the devolved Administrations on that. Can the Deputy Prime Minister report to us now on the outcome of those discussions?
The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was present for my hon. Friend the Minister's update to the House on Report, when he gave a full account of the ongoing discussions with the devolved Administrations and the Presiding Officers of the devolved Assemblies. I understand that people have different views on the coincidence of the two elections in 2015, but I hope the hon. Lady and everyone else will recognise that the Bill does not create the possibility of a clash of elections. Indeed, a clash in 2015 could easily have occurred under the existing arrangements if this Parliament had continued until 2015.
What the Bill does is alert us well ahead of time that there is going to be such a clash. It allows us to anticipate and plan for a date that coincides in that way. As it happens, such clashes will occur only every 20 years. The discussions that we are entering now with the devolved Assemblies, the Presiding Officers and the leaders of the devolved Executives are precisely to take advantage of the fact that we have advance warning of an overlap or a clash, which otherwise we would not have had.
Naomi Long: Although I accept the argument that parliamentary and Assembly elections could have coincided anyway, as might have happened in 2015, is this not a missed opportunity to take a constructive decision on whether such a coinciding is a good or bad thing so that we could then routinely avoid it or make it happen? Instead, it is again being left somewhat to chance.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I agree that in principle a clash of elections to the devolved Assemblies and to the House of Commons should be avoided. As I have said before in debates, there is a world of difference between the potential for confusion among voters being asked to vote for two different Parliaments that will in turn create two different Executives or Governments-a wholly more serious issue-and the coincidence of such elections with a referendum on a specific yes or no issue, as will be the case with the AV referendum and the elections this May. We have always accepted the fundamental assertion that we need to find a way around that. We have had ongoing discussions and will continue to do so with an open mind. We made the suggestion that the devolved Assemblies should have the power to shift the date of their elections by six months either before or after the general election. That has not been greeted with universal approbation, but it is none the less a sincere attempt on our part to try to find a way forward.
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister, who is being generous in giving way. Can he confirm that the provision set out in clause 1(5) will extend the maximum length of a Parliament beyond five years and that therefore it would be the longest fixed-term Parliament in the world, other than Rwanda? There is no fixed-term Parliament in the world of five years.
The Deputy Prime Minister:
The hon. Gentleman has read the provisions of the Bill correctly, and I think that his point was confirmed by the Minister on Report. On
the point about the coincidence of elections, Northern Ireland Office Ministers are conducting separate discussions with the parties in Northern Ireland, where the issues are slightly different. It would be inappropriate for me to prejudge the outcome of those ongoing discussions. We will of course endeavour to keep colleagues on the Opposition Benches informed.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): My right hon. Friend is entirely right that the judgment about how long a Parliament should last is not an exact science. During the debates in Committee, I opted for four years because I felt that that was more appropriate. It would avoid the clashes and mean that we would engage regularly with our electorate, which we should all be doing. It would be important in helping to keep us all in touch with our constituents. Would he say more on the thinking behind the decision to have five years rather than four?
The Deputy Prime Minister: As I said before, that is the existing maximum and has been for a very long time. It has recently become the norm, as five of the past nine Parliaments stretched to five years, including the previous Parliament. The hon. Gentleman might disagree, but I hope that he will at least accept the legitimacy of the argument that a four-year Parliament, politics being what it is, would naturally incline parties in power to look towards the next election well ahead of that four-year deadline and that government would be arrested and suspended as the party in power positioned itself months or sometimes a year or so before an impending general election, which would curtail considerably the time in which Governments can do difficult and brave things. Five years, however, is clearly a period during which Governments can take difficult and bold decisions that from time to time, as we very well know now, are necessary.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): My right hon. Friend was asked about clause 1(5) and the length of time between general elections, but my reading of that provision is that it does not extend the life of a Parliament. Parliament will still expire after five years, but the general election has to come within two months after that if it is extended, which is a shorter period than the current maximum.
The Deputy Prime Minister: I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) on the theology of those things. The hon. Member for Rhondda says that he is wrong, but my understanding is that the Bill is fairy clear on that point, even if it a little opaque to me on that very specific point. As my hon. Friend knows, the provisions purely address highly exceptional circumstances that arise for one reason or another, such as unforeseen emergency circumstances. Foot and mouth is an obvious recent example of where it is self-evident that an election simply could not be conducted either practically or politically. That is what was we had in mind when we drafted the Bill in those terms.
In conclusion, the Government believe that fixed-term Parliaments represent a simple but absolutely fundamental change: strengthening Parliament, providing stability
and moving us towards the new politics that we have all promised the people of Britain. I commend the Bill to the House.
Sadiq Khan: Things are desperate when the Whips have to arrange things to get most of the Liberal parliamentary party into the Chamber, but it is good to see two rows of Liberal MPs. The Deputy Prime Minister knows more about mutinies than I do, but I suspect that the situation tonight is similar to that of a football club chairman who says to his manager, "Your job is safe." I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman's continued contribution to debates about constitutional reform.
The Bill before us allows the Government to set in stone the date of the next general election as Thursday 7 May 2015. It also gives them time to foist a series of constitutional changes on to the country. They will reduce the size of the House of Commons by 50 MPs, redraw constituency boundaries and silence the voices of local residents through the removal of public inquiries. This Bill allows them the time to do that, and as the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who is not in his place, said on Second Reading, it smacks of
"gerrymandering the constitution in favour of a particular coalition".-[ Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 624.]
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to suggest that, by the Prime Minister giving up power and by making the votes of people in Corby equal to the votes of people in the Rhondda, we are gerrymandering the Bill? That is an amazing use of language.
The hon. Lady should be interested in my next point, however, because the Bill before us also ties the hands of the Conservative party to the Liberal Democrats. With this Bill, their respective fates and identities become inseparable. Make no mistake: the Bill is not for the good of the country; it is for the good of the Ministers on the Treasury Bench. What compounds that outrageous piece of attempted constitutional fixing is the fact they are trying to ram it through at breakneck speed. That urgency is because Back Benchers from both coalition parties are having second thoughts about the issue, so party managers need to get them super-glued together quickly, with no way out.
The Liberal Democrats' policy was for four-year fixed-term Parliaments, but unfortunately the coalition has hijacked a sensible and progressive idea, amended it for its own means and tried to rush through legislation preventing a proper, wide-ranging debate on an important
-[Hon. Members: "Give way!"] I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. He has been in charge of timetabling the Bill, and if he had wanted to speak, he should have allowed more time for debate.
Sir Peter Bottomley: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If the right hon. Gentleman had intended to take up the first two minutes of his speech himself, one might have understood his response. If he intends to let others come in, however, why does he not let the Minister have a word?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): The hon. Gentleman is very experienced and knows that that is not a point of order. It is entirely up to Mr Khan as to whom he decides to give way to. While I am on my feet, may I remind Members that there is supposed to be only one Member on their feet at any one time in the Chamber?
I want to be clear that the criticism of the speed with which the legislation is being pushed through comes not from us alone. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Clerk of the House of Commons, Professor Robert Hazell of the constitution unit and other academic experts, and the House of Lords Constitution Committee have all criticised not only the Bill, but the way in which it is being rushed through without consideration for the consequences on our constitution, both intended and unintended.
May I deal with an important point at the outset? It has been said that the Bill needs to go through unchanged because it is part of the coalition agreement. The new politics means that we can forget about what people voted for, about manifestos and about the promises that were made before the election. The deal that was done means that the agreement that was reached after the election cannot be touched. However, the Bill no longer provides for a general election if 55% of hon. Members believe that one is needed, as was stated in the coalition agreement. The Deputy Prime Minister made an embarrassing U-turn on that issue, proving that the coalition agreement has no constitutional significance at all. I hope that the other place will pay heed to that.
Our major concern from the beginning has been that five years is simply too long for a fixed-term Parliament. We have argued throughout the scrutiny process for four-year terms. That not only compares well with other Parliaments, but provides a better fit with our current constitutional arrangements. Moreover, we have heard the concerns of our colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland about the short-term consequences of fixing Parliaments at five years. The potential clash with the Assembly elections in Wales and Northern Ireland and the parliamentary election in Scotland on 7 May 2015 shows a blatant disregard for those parts of the Union.
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): The right hon. Gentleman is keen to ascribe motives that were not present in the decision to make it five years. Will he give some indication of the thinking of the previous Prime Minister in deciding that the Parliament that has just ended should last five years?
Sadiq Khan: The right hon. Gentleman will accept that, like his party, we were in favour of fixed-term Parliaments and that, like his party, we thought four years was the appropriate length of time. In between the ballot boxes closing and Liberal Democrats reaching their ministerial cars, his party changed the figure to five years for the simple reason that it meant that it could gerrymander before the next general election.
Sadiq Khan: The hon. Gentleman should explain why he has changed his mind in relation to his predecessor's Bill. He will recall that there was insufficient time to allow the Bill introduced by his predecessor-a very good and honourable man-to receive proper debate in the House of Commons. The question that should be asked is why the hon. Gentleman has done a U-turn on that Bill. [ Interruption. ] The Whip, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), heckles me but if he wants to get to his feet, I am happy to take an intervention.
This sort of Westminster arrogance will not go down well in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. People in those places will remember the arrogant way in which the Deputy Prime Minister's deputy, after a number of hours of debate on this issue on day one of the Committee, and after a number of Members had spoken, pulled from his pocket an option to allow devolved Assembly elections to be brought forward by up to six months in the event of their being scheduled at the same time as a general election. There was no consultation and no discussion with us or the devolved Administrations before that. We have heard how unhappy they are with this.
Mr Harper: The right hon. Gentleman knows, as I made clear at the time, that I announced that option in this House first because I thought it proper for Parliament to hear it first. I then wrote to all the party leaders. During the process, I have kept him informed, have placed copies of the correspondence in the House of Commons and have updated the House. At all stages, I have kept this House informed, as is the proper process.
Sadiq Khan: I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to intervene again. Is it not right that a number of colleagues had taken part in the debate and an amendment had been moved, and that it was only towards the end of the evening that he pulled the option out of his pocket?
Mr Harper: I was very keen to do something that the previous Government did not do often: I listened to the debate and to the concerns raised by Members on both sides of the House, and then announced to the House what I thought might be a sensible move forward. As I said on Report, colleagues in the devolved Parliament and Assemblies have written back to me to say that they are less than overwhelmed by my proposals. That is why we did not move them on Report. That was a perfectly sensible way to conduct matters.
Sadiq Khan: The problem is that an amendment was moved, hon. Members took part in the debate, and then the Minister introduced the other option, yet gave us no chance to respond, because of the guillotining by those on the Government Front Bench.
More recently, and more importantly for this House, our concerns about the length of the Parliament have been strengthened since the Bill was in Committee by the Lords Constitution Committee. In his short contribution, the Deputy Prime Minister cherry-picked parts of its report, but he missed out the most crucial bit. In the Constitution Committee's view, five years is simply too long. Like us, it argues that four years is more appropriate. Its report challenged the Deputy Prime Minister's assertions that the Government's progress on constitutional and political reform, of which the Bill is a key component, will make Parliament more accountable to the people. The Constitution Committee argues that the provisions in the Bill to fix the length of Parliaments to five years would lead to less frequent elections and make the legislature less accountable, not more. Under a system of fixed five-year terms, there would have been four fewer elections since 1945.
I know the pressure that will be brought to bear on Government Members to support the Bill-a Bill that they do not believe in and that they have a problem with. However, when they come to decide whether to give it a Third Reading, they should remember the words of the Lords Constitution Committee, which said that a five-year term was
"inconsistent with the Government's stated aim of making the legislature more accountable, inconsistent with existing constitutional practice and inconsistent with the practice of the devolved institutions and the clear majority of international legislatures"-
except in Rwanda. If the Bill goes through this House, the Opposition will be looking to the Lords to heed the advice of their own Constitution Committee and recognise that four years is a much more sensible length of time for a fixed-term Parliament.
Time is short, so I will not go into the other problems that we have with the Bill. However, what I will say, and for the second time in a number of months, is that I am optimistic and sincerely hopeful that the other place will inject some sanity into this Bill, through proper scrutiny. This Bill is rushed, self-serving and opportunistic. It is an affront to how we ought to go about amending and improving our constitution. We shall be voting against it being given a Third Reading.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con):
I have no rancour against the coalition. I think that it is doing some wonderful things: in deficit reduction, welfare reform and education. We are lucky to have two very fine young men at the head of this coalition-they know who they are, and they do not need to be named. However, I feel that they have got this one wrong. This Bill is a mistake. We have had 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy. We have had no despots
ruling-and ruining-this country. We have a great deal to be proud of. I have listened to the arguments closely from the outset. I voted against the Bill on Second Reading, and I had hoped to be persuaded in the intervening weeks that somehow I was wrong and that many of my colleagues were right. However, I am afraid that I was right and they are wrong. This remains an extremely bad Bill.
Some wonderful arguments have been put forward. We have been told that the British public do not like general elections-that we must have less of them; that the last thing that my constituents want is a general election every three or four years, because they are so bored of them. However, in the same breath, we are told that we should have elections for mayors and police commissioners; and yet somehow, the most important election of all-a general election-is relegated to something that we would rather not have, and if we must have them, we should have them every five years.
Mr Walker: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be standing in his seat at the next general election and that the reason his constituents cannot wait is that they want once again to affirm his brilliance.
We have had 350 years of settled parliamentary democracy, and we are now turning our backs on that a little hastily. Of course, we can draw on the European model. Europe is a great place-I think it is absolutely wonderful-but there is not a great deal that it can teach us about democracy. Democracy is an innovation across most of Europe, arriving in 1945 and 1946 in some places, and in the late 1990s in others. So, although many good things are happening in Europe, our parliamentary democracy is something that we should be proud of.
I do not want to stray outside the bounds of this Third Reading debate, so I shall conclude my remarks by saying that I think this coalition is going to last for five years. It is led by two honourable and right honourable Gentlemen, and if they want it to last for five years, they will take their parliamentary parties with them. But it should not be the duty of Parliament to do the heavy lifting for the coalition. That is the duty of the coalition partners. The Bill is a grave mistake, and I am afraid that there is only one thing I can do from now on: I must work tirelessly for the rest of my parliamentary career to become Prime Minister so that I can do away with what I regard as this rather dangerous piece of nonsense.
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