Government formation post-election - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

4  The first meeting of a new Parliament

51. Prior to the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the dissolution of Parliament before a general election and its summoning after the election had been by royal proclamation, on advice from the Prime Minister. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 removed from the Prime Minister control of the date of the dissolution at the end of a fixed-term Parliament. Control of the date for the return of Parliament continues to reside in the incumbent Prime Minister's hands. Formally, the date is set by Royal Proclamation following dissolution ahead of the general election. Edward Young, Deputy Private Secretary to the Queen, confirmed to us that this is done on the advice of the incumbent Prime Minister.[40] The Cabinet Manual notes that recent practice had been for Parliament to return on the first Wednesday following the election but there has been a significant variation throughout the post-war period, from as little as two days in 1955 to as long as 19 in 1992.[41] Following a recommendation by the Modernisation Committee, a delay of 12 days between the election and the summoning of the new Parliament was adopted in 2010.

52. There is no statutory basis for the 12 day period between the general election and the summoning of the new Parliament. In fact, the Prime Minister is under no obligation to summon Parliament by a specific date: the only restrictions on the decision are imposed by political pressure and parliamentary opinion.[42] The 12 day period was introduced to allow new MPs to deal with practical matters such as hiring staff and setting up offices, to receive some induction training and to generally "acclimatise" to their new role. It was felt that there was little opportunity for this once the formal business of Parliament had resumed.

53. We think it is wrong in principle that the decision on the date of Parliament's return should be in the hands of the Prime Minister. Control over the date of general elections was put on a statutory basis to prevent the Prime Minister from choosing the most favourable time. We recommend that the date of Parliament's first sitting following a General Election should similarly be put on a statutory basis.

54. It is possible that the Prime Minister may choose a lengthy period before the new Parliament first meets. We recommend that, in the event that no single party has a majority in the House of Commons to be elected on 7 May 2015, Parliament should return as soon as possible. Transparency is paramount, and a newly elected Parliament should be as informed and involved as possible in any negotiations surrounding the formation of the new government. It is important that the House of Commons should be able to publicly debate important issues surrounding the formation of government at the earliest opportunity.

55. We recommend that the Prime Minister sets the date for Parliament's return following the General Election for Monday 11 May 2015. In the event that there is a decisive result and a single party has a majority, Parliament's return could be postponed.

56. The introduction of the 12 day period before Parliament's return in 2010 was for reasons relating to the induction of new members but was done without regard to issues of government formation. We believe that induction could proceed in parallel with sittings of the House. Indeed, debating the formation of the new government would prove a valuable part of any induction for a new Member.

57. Once summoned, there are some practical issues that place some constraints on the speed with which the House of Commons can resume its business.[43] Under the current timetable, on the day Parliament is summoned to meet, the Father of the House leads members to the House of Lords to hear the cause of summons from a Royal Commission. The House of Commons then chooses its Speaker. If the previous Speaker has been returned as a Member at the General Election and is elected, the following day the Speaker-elect leads Members back to the Lords to be formally confirmed in the post. The process would take a day longer if the election were contested.

58. Members must then be sworn in. Currently, there is a statutory requirement that each member must be sworn in individually at the Table of the House. This would normally take place over two or three days. We were told by the Clerk of the House of Commons that under current practice up to 90 members could be sworn in every half hour, but that it could be done at twice the speed if there were general agreement.[44] It seems clear that, if there is a general consensus, these practical and legal issues could be dealt with more quickly, allowing the House to proceed to substantive business significantly more quickly.

Appointing the government

59. Following the election of the Speaker and swearing in of Members, the first significant piece of business for the House of Commons is the debate on the Queen's Speech setting out the government's programme. The vote on the Address in response to the Queen's Speech is currently the first opportunity the new government has to demonstrate that it has the confidence of the House and can indeed govern. Consequently, it is also one signal of the end of a caretaker period of government.

60. The means by which the date of the Queen's Speech is decided upon is fairly opaque: Sir Jeremy Heywood told us that there was "no great constraint constitutionally" on when the date of the speech was announced, but that it would be announced "in good time for [it] to happen".[45] There is no specified date by which this must be done, and there can be a substantial gap between the Queen's appointment of a new Prime Minister and the opportunity for the House to demonstrate its confidence: the Queen's Speech has sometimes been held three weeks or more after the general election and a week or more after Parliament has returned.[46] Consequently, the Queen's appointment of the new Prime Minister is made only in the expectation that they will be able to command the House's confidence.[47] Where the election has delivered a single party a clear majority, then this expectation might be confident. But where coalition negotiations are ongoing, a minority government is in prospect, or there are a variety of alternative governments conceivable, it may be far less so. The vagueness of the rules governing the caretaker period means that it is uncertain whether the caretaker period continues until this vote has taken place.

61. For this reason, we considered the Institute for Government's proposal that some form of parliamentary investiture or approval might be introduced, to take place rather earlier than the votes on the Queen's Speech.[48] The Institute for Government note that such practice is common in many other jurisdictions. In both Scotland and Wales, for example, it is a legal requirement for there to be a vote formally nominating the incoming First Minister (in the form of a recommendation to the Queen) following an election. The advantages are clear. An investiture vote of some form would give a clear signal that the person appointed as Prime Minister by the Queen would indeed have the confidence of the House and would be able to govern. Without that, the new appointment may be made on the balance of probability. Such a vote would also give a clear and decisive indication that a caretaker period has ended and a new government has begun.

62. A matter of days away from dissolution, it is clearly too late for a procedure for an investiture vote to properly be introduced in time for Parliament's return after the election, though if there were a clear requirement in the national interest for an early demonstration of the House's confidence in a new administration then we expect that it would be possible for agreement to be reached on the procedural change required. We recommend that, in the next Parliament, the necessary steps are taken to introduce investiture votes for incoming governments in the future.

An expedited process

63. At our request, the Clerk of the House of Commons outlined an expedited process that would allow the House to resume normal business as soon as possible after the election. Such a process could also allow for some form of affirmatory vote on the new prime minister. The Clerk's note, which includes more detail, is included in Appendix 1 of this report. The Clerk of Parliaments has confirmed to us that the House of Lords could accommodate an expedited process of this sort.[49]

64. In this expedited process, the House of Commons could be debating as early as the afternoon of the Monday following the election, assuming that the election results had been declared and the writs of election duly returned. The House could return on Monday morning, and, rather than requiring the first visit of the House to the Lords seen in current practice, a senior Privy Counsellor could direct the house to elect a Speaker.[50] If the returning Speaker were re-elected, royal approval of the appointment could be conveyed by the same Privy Counsellor rather than requiring a second visit to the Lords.

65. With the Speaker confirmed, Members must then be sworn in. It is a legal requirement of the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 that Members must be sworn in at the table of the House. This has been taken to preclude a mass swearing of the oath. But we were told that swearing-in could be conducted with two separate 'streams', allowing the whole House to be sworn in a couple of hours. The process for individual swearing of the oath in the Chamber could be expedited, and other reforms considered. The legislation governing this should be revisited with a view to considering some form of collective swearing of the oath or individual swearing outside the chamber. Pending that change, we recommend that the swearing-in process should be carried out using two streams.

66. With the Speaker in place and Members sworn in, some form of formal commission from the Queen would be required for Parliament to resume business. This has traditionally taken the form of a motion to debate the Address in response to the Queen's Speech. However, with a successor government still to be decided, the commission could be delivered by a senior Privy Counsellor. This would allow the House to reassemble by early afternoon to debate a motion to be moved by a Minister in the caretaker Government. This could continue until the composition of the new government were clear. The Queen's Speech would then proceed, with the subsequent vote as a de facto affirmation vote.

67. We recommend that, in the event of an indecisive election, Parliament should return on Monday 11 May and, using an expedited process, should enter on business as soon as is practicable that day. The necessary measures to enable this should be put in place ahead of the General Election, including by a further proclamation if necessary.

40   Appendix 4 Back

41   Constitutional implications of Coalition government, House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Fifth Report of 2013-14, HL 139, para 38 Back

42   Q52 [Paul Evans, David Natzler] Back

43   Qq35-36 [David Natzler] Back

44   Qq47-49 [David Natzler] Back

45   Q41 [Paul Evans, David Natzler] and Qq 104-05 [Sir Jeremy Heywood] Back

46   Constitutional implications of Coalition government, House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, Fifth Report of 2013-14, HL 139, para 38 Back

47   Q8 [Dr Catherine Haddon] Back

48   Institute for Government (GFE 03), para 15 Back

49   Appendix 2 Back

50   This was a recommendation of the Procedure Committee in 1996 but was never implemented. See Procedure Committee, First Report of Session 1995-96, Proceedings at the Start of a Parliament, HC 386, para 3


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Prepared 26 March 2015