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The Deputy Prime Minister made the case for the Bill at Second Reading. He said that it would remove the right of the Prime Minister to seek the Dissolution of Parliament for-as he put it-"pure political gain". Yes, for what it is worth, it does do that. However, I do not believe that the right of the Prime Minister to determine the date of the next general election has been a great mischief. He said that it would stop feverish speculation about the date of the general election, distracting politicians from getting on with running the country; that it would bring greater stability
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In their last minute response to the Constitution Select Committee yesterday, the Government added that it would engender a more long-term policy-making approach. There are other reasons why politicians are distracted, why journalists speculate, why there is political instability, why there is perpetual campaigning and why there is governmental short-termism. Fixed-term Parliaments would be no political cure-all.
The benefits of the Bill have been exaggerated. The Bill would make another more serious mischief worse, and it would create new mischiefs. The existing serious mischief that it would make worse is the excessive domination of the House of Commons by the Executive and the ineffectuality of the House of Commons on behalf of the people in holding the Executive to account. A Government who are more secure about staying in office for a full five years will be more dominant and less accountable.
On 5 July, the Deputy Prime Minister declared to the House of Commons that the Government's mission was to transfer power away from the Executive to empower Parliament. In his Hansard lecture of 16 November, he proclaimed,
This Bill fails the single test that the Deputy Prime Minister set himself. The average interval between general elections since 1945 has been three years and 10 months. With this legislation, the people would in future have to wait a full five years before they had the opportunity to exercise their choice and control as to who should be their Members of Parliament and members of the Government. The coalition has conflated two issues to its own political advantage. There was the political question of how to ensure the longevity of the coalition and the constitutional issue as to whether we should have fixed-term Parliaments. To legislate to protect the coalition parties from facing the electors before five years are up is very convenient for two parties that formed a Government without having won an election and which are incurring bitter unpopularity for their scorched earth policies towards the economy and society.
even as Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament were meditating on breaking their promise on tuition fees and provoking new depths of cynicism among the public about politics. No wonder the Deputy Prime Minister was glad to announce to the House of Commons on 5 July that the date of the next general election would be 7 May 2015.
As such, the proposal should have been put forward tentatively, consultatively and in the search for a consensus
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That seems to me to be one of the most foolish things that I have ever heard any senior politician in this country say. Can the experienced noble Lords on the Conservative Benches do nothing to restrain these boys?
As with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, there has been no Green Paper or White Paper and no draft Bill or pre-legislative scrutiny. How much better it would have been had Ministers been able to hear the thoughts of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate before they formulated their legislation. Political convenience for the coalition has again trumped respect for Parliament and the constitution. The Deputy Prime Minister said at Second Reading that,
Why might fixed-term Parliaments be a bad idea? In some circumstances an early general election might well be desirable. I have been impressed by that case as it has been made by a number of noble Lords in the debate so far, and I was impressed by the evidence that Professor Vernon Bogdanor offered to the Constitution Committee. A Parliament might be judged not to be viable-that was the judgment that Mr Attlee took in 1951 and that Mr Wilson took in October 1974. It cannot be a good thing for a lame-duck Parliament to hobble along with a Government unable to govern effectively. It might be right for the country to have the opportunity to endorse a new Prime Minister, a judgment that Anthony Eden made in 1955 and that Gordon Brown nearly made in 2007-and the judgment that, by fits and starts, Mr David Cameron has also made. It might be right for the country to have the opportunity to endorse a new policy, as Baldwin thought about tariff reform in 1923 and as the coalition ought to think now about its extremely radical and contentious policies on the National Health Service and the welfare state. To make changes of this kind, so bitterly contentious, without any authority from the people, is an offence against democracy. It might be appropriate for the country to have the opportunity to endorse a new coalition, as was the case when the national Government were formed in 1931, and might yet be the case when Tory and Liberal Democrat Back-Benchers can no longer bear this coalition.
We are advised to expect that hung Parliaments will occur more frequently in the future with the reducing percentage of the vote for the two major parties, and particularly if we have the alternative vote. Why should Governments be made mid-term by wheeler-dealer politicians supervised by the Cabinet Secretary inside 70 Whitehall rather than by the people in a new general election? The Deputy Prime Minister on 7 June blustered that,
It might be right to hold a general election if Parliament is quite simply clapped-out and discredited. Would it not have been preferable to have had a general election in 1996 rather than wait until 1997? Would it not have been preferable to have had a general election in 2009 rather than wait until 2010?
There are two safety valves in the Bill that will enable, exceptionally, an early general election to take place. Are they appropriate? Yes, in the case of the retention of the traditional right of the House of Commons to expel a Government on a vote of no confidence with a majority of one, but why legislate for a maximum of 14 days of negotiations following a vote of no confidence? Legislation is not needed to allow a period of negotiations in such circumstances, so why specify a time limit? I do not believe that in this country we will find ourselves in the same case as in Belgium or Iraq.
The second safety valve is very questionable: the provision that by a vote of two-thirds of all Members of Parliament the House of Commons can vote for an early general election. Why legislate for a super-majority? The reason is political: to stop the Tories and the Liberal Democrats ratting on each other. This threshold for Dissolution is too high; a majority of one should be enough, and I believe that all this apparatus is unnecessary. Gordon Brown, in the previous Parliament, proposed that the Prime Minister should not simply be able to go to the Palace in the future but should be required to seek a majority in the House of Commons before requesting Dissolution. If that were to be the convention-and I do not believe that we would need legislation to secure it as such-it would be a simple and satisfactory solution to the primary problem which the proponents of this Bill have identified.
The more we look at this short and apparently simple Bill, the more difficulties appear, as the Constitution Committee has found. What exactly is a no confidence vote? What is a confidence vote? How, indeed, are votes to be counted? That might seem an unnecessary question, except that Dr Jack, the Clerk of the House of Commons himself, raised anxieties about this in his evidence to the Select Committee in another place. Will not the impact on the Speakership of requiring the Speaker to certify a no-confidence or a confidence Motion in very contentious circumstances be dangerous indeed? The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, spoke brilliantly and devastatingly on this matter.
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Some of these matters that I have just touched upon seem to me to illustrate the dangers of moving towards a written constitution-here I differ from my noble friend Lord Morgan. If there is to be a fixed-term Parliament, how long should the term be? Four years is more normal where there are fixed terms, we are advised. Mr Asquith intended that four years should be the norm. Since the war, only weak and unpopular Governments have staggered to the full five years. The people of this country accept that after four years, or very shortly after that, it is a fair do if the Government call the election.
Whether the term should be four years or five is, as the Government have said, a matter of judgment, but it is significant that the judgment they have made is that it should be a five-year term, thus increasing the benefit for themselves and reducing the frequency with which the people will have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights at a general election. This is just the kind of political opportunism that the Government, in their response to the Constitution Select Committee, have said that the public are tired of. I believe that we should amend this to four years.
As for resetting the clock and the question of whether, after an early general election, there should be a new five-year term or whether the new Parliament should simply use up the balance of the previous five-year term, again, the coalition has opted to extend the power of the Executive and to diminish accountability. I think that is the preferable choice-not being in favour of fixed-term Parliaments-but it should also be noted that if there is an early general election and the clock is reset, the relationship between five-yearly boundary reviews and the new Parliaments that the Government attached so much importance to when we were considering the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is thrown out.
If five-yearly Parliaments proceed without interruption, there will be an unfortunate coincidence in 2015, and every 20 years after, between general elections for the country as a whole and elections to the devolved institutions. It is simply boorish for the Government to impose general elections on the same day as elections to the devolved institutions, candidates for which should be judged on their own performance and their own promise, not immersed in the backwash of a UK general election. The coalition has already wrecked the 2011 devolved elections; it is now belatedly consulting. What would be wrong with amending this Bill to move the date of elections to October? The interaction with other constitutional changes has not been thought about. There are possible elections to a second Chamber and there is the interaction with the parliamentary privileges Bill that we are promised in draft.
This Bill is unnecessary. It does not respond to any significant problems or real grievances. Mr Harper cites opinion polls showing, he asserts, that the public broadly welcome fixed-term Parliaments, but the Hansard Society's audit of democratic engagement shows the public uncertain and indifferent: 60 per cent had no understanding of the issue; 39 per cent were satisfied that the Government should appoint the date of the general election; 38 per cent had no preference or view; and only 28 per cent were dissatisfied.
The Bill would limit the power of the Executive in one respect-the power of the Prime Minister to determine the date of the general election-but would increase the power of the Executive through guaranteeing them prolonged life. It is busybody legislation brought in by people who want to parade themselves as constitutional reformers without having thought carefully about the constitution. It will be the duty of this House, once again, to limit the damage. I hope that when we are in Committee the Government will not regard this as a trial of strength but will look forward to Committee and treat it as a collaborative attempt to improve the legislation.
Lord Touhig: My Lords, like many noble Lords I pay tribute to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. For those of us who knew him in the other place, I can honestly say that it was vintage Cormack. When he speaks in future, I am sure we will note that he is a distinguished parliamentarian who is worth listening to because he talks a lot of sense.
It is somewhat ironic that this debate on further changes to our constitution by introducing fixed-term Parliaments is being held on St David's Day. I was delighted, by the way, to see the Draig Goch flying above Westminster Abbey as I came in this morning for St David's Day, that great day which we celebrate. It is ironic because this Government have shown a complete lack of regard-indeed, have shown nothing but contempt-for Wales in their constitutional changes put so far before Parliament. We have already seen the gross spectacle of the Government forcing through a blatantly partisan Bill, which will reduce the number of Welsh representatives in the other place by a quarter and will certainly damage the relationship between Wales and the rest of the union. This Bill has been drafted with little or no concern for the impact that it will have on Wales or, for that matter, on Scotland and Northern Ireland.
At the heart of this matter is the Government's failure to test their proposals by way of pre-legislative scrutiny. We have constantly been told by the Government that they are committed to pre-legislative scrutiny, but we have yet to see the evidence. The Constitution Committee in your Lordships' House has stated:
The committee is certainly right so far as that is concerned. The Government originally proposed a threshold of 55 per cent in order for a dissolution to occur in the other place; that has now been revised after much criticism to a two-thirds majority. Equally, the Government originally proposed to put a binding order for dissolution to occur-an order which would
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The Government have equally failed to consider properly the importance of this Bill and how it interrelates with other proposed constitutional changes. They seem obsessed with piecemeal changes to our constitution. For example, it is not at all clear why changing how people vote demands a referendum, but changing when they vote does not require a referendum. None of the detail of the Bill was subjected to proper consultation or proper pre-legislative scrutiny. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Mr Harper, when challenged on this, informed the Constitution Committee that pre-legislative scrutiny was less important in the first term since,
He was serious when he made that statement. Surely when it comes to our constitution, proper pre-legislative scrutiny should always occur-no matter how much of a brake that places upon the Government.
We all know that the Deputy Prime Minister is under a lot of pressure-so much so that he forgot the Prime Minister was abroad last week and had left him in charge of the country. It says something about the arrogant way in which the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister in particular have proceeded with this legislation that the Constitution Committee found it necessary to remind the Government that the proper way to introduce a constitutional reform proposal is to publish a Green Paper or a White Paper or a draft Bill and take into account the comments and concerns raised in the process of consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in the Bill that is finally introduced. The Bill has simply not been properly consulted upon and, as I have said, there has been no pre-legislative scrutiny that is worthy of the name.
The Bill allows for an election to be called in the aftermath of the vote of no confidence and sets out a procedure to be followed after such a vote. The Bill, however, fails to state what constitutes a vote of no confidence. Instead, Clause 2(2) places the onus on the Speaker of the House of Commons to determine whether the requirements for an early election have been met. The Minister, Mr Harper, told the Constitution Committee that the Speaker of the House of Commons would be guided by convention in determining whether the requirements have been met. The conventions, however, are not clear on what constitutes a Motion of no confidence. As such, the Speaker is in effect given a significant amount of responsibility to determine when a Motion amounts to a vote of no confidence-and hence to determine when an election can be called. Such powers for the Speaker are completely unprecedented and risk radically altering the role of the holder of that office.
Conspiracy theorists who might have read the weekend press will have learned that the Government are allegedly plotting a way in which the House of Commons can
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As the Constitution Committee noted, the Speaker's judgment on what amounts to a Motion of no confidence risks placing him in conflict with the Government, and hence with a majority of the House. It is unclear whether Motions of no confidence include defeats on key confidence issues, such as the Queen's Speech or the Budget, or whether they include cases where the Government lose votes on other matters.
The Government have, without any consultation on the issue and with very limited justification for the position that they have taken, arrived at the decision that the appropriate length for a fixed-term Parliament is five years. The Deputy Prime Minister has stated:
with which people are familiar. However, as my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport has just pointed out, since 1945 Parliaments have sat for an average of three years and 10 months. Of the last three general elections, two were called after around four years and one was called after a full period of five years. Therefore, I contend that there is little support for the Deputy Prime Minister's assertion that people are used to a pattern of five-year Parliaments. When my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer opened the debate for this side, he reminded us that five-year Parliaments were introduced by the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. However, it is worth remembering that Asquith said at the time that in all probability this would result in an actual working legislative period of around four years. Therefore, when a five-year maximum term was introduced, it was expected that five years would indeed be the maximum and that general elections would occur more frequently than once every five years.
A five-year, as opposed to a four-year, maximum would make elections significantly less frequent than they are at present, which would surely make politicians less accountable to their constituents. Yet we all remember that the Deputy Prime Minister promised an era of "new politics" in which voters would be more, not less, engaged in the democratic process. More important, people want to hold their politicians to account for the actions that they take in power, and we should do nothing to restrict them in exercising that right. That was certainly the view of the Liberal Democrat Party when in 2007 it published documents that favoured a four-year fixed term. One wonders whether the Deputy Prime Minister's new-found commitment to five-year Parliaments is borne more out of fear of facing the electorate than out of principle.
The Government have not made a particularly compelling case that fixed-term Parliaments are a good thing. Even if allowing Prime Ministers to manipulate the electoral cycle to their own advantage is a bad thing, it is not clear that the Bill will improve that situation very much at all. The Government have
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Lord Dobbs: My Lords, it is a pleasure for me to be able to participate in a debate which has seen the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Cormack. It was joyous and I look forward to listening to his speeches for many years to come.
It is also a great pleasure to speak on St David's Day, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, has pointed out, and to listen to the fine speeches of so many Welshmen. As a naive newcomer to this place, I might have been forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that the vast majority of Members of this House were Scots.
I have never been elected. I have never even stood for election, although many years ago I did suggest to the Conservative Party that it should adopt me as its candidate in the constituency of Manchester Moss Side. Very wisely it turned me down, as no doubt the electors would have done had they been given the chance. However, I have had various other roles and have come to revere elections-the unelected in pursuit of the uninterested, to mangle Oscar Wilde, although I have never been entirely sure which is the hunter and which is the fox.
I was fortunate, indeed honoured, to be with my noble friend Lady Thatcher in Barnet town hall in 1979 watching her own count on the night of her election victory. I was the first to be able to tell her that she had won. I was with her the following day in Downing Street as she took her first steps across the threshold as Prime Minister and quoted St Francis of Assisi:
Yes, I have to admit that I thought we had lost her there for a moment. I was there when she went in and I was there with John Major when we were kicked out, so I know a little about both the triumphs and the tears that go with these great outbursts of the people's will.
I do not wish to tread over ground already so well trodden during this debate and will perhaps find a slightly different path in considering the Bill. I do not
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The costs of running political machines are huge, and those costs regularly leave our political parties in a state of financial chaos-often near bankruptcy. Of the millions that are raised, so much is spent-some would say squandered-during a few weeks of electoral warfare, leaving the parties to starve in the following years when issues on which those elections were fought are pursued through Parliament. Great political machines are built to win the campaign only to be ripped apart immediately thereafter. Party workers are sacked and discarded just at the point when they might have been working for the long-term health of their parties and our political system. It is a sad and desperately inefficient way to run a democracy.
Perhaps I should declare an old and perhaps expired interest because I was once an employee of the Conservative research department-a place where I laboured many long hours and for very little money under the direction of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. As I said, it was a long time ago. Finding the money to run a healthy political system is not easy but I believe that this Bill will help. Under the present system, party managers never dare take the risk of being unprepared, so at the first whiff of a possible election they gear up before any spending caps ever come into consideration. Staff are employed, premises are leased, equipment is found, posters sites are booked and battle buses are commissioned. The troops are brought up to speed and made ready for war, but having been marched up the hill, under present circumstances, they are often then marched down again until the next scare, and much of the precious money raised is wasted.
We have not yet found the right answer to funding political parties but I believe that fixed-term Parliaments will help by allowing party managers to plan more effectively and party treasurers to fund more wisely. That may not be the most important outcome of this Bill but it must be a good outcome. I have no doubt that in Committee my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness will listen with all his characteristic sensitivity to suggestions for improvement that are already being put forward. I hope that he will not close his mind to them even if they take matters a little beyond the fixed wording of the coalition agreement. I mention just one. It is not the matter of thresholds-although I have to say that a two-thirds threshold is a very generous offer and one that I would happily have accepted a couple of weeks ago. I want to endorse the point raised by many Members here. The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes, Lord Wigley and Lord Howarth, have asked, why May? Why not, for example, June or October? I hope we will be allowed to identify a date that is most suitable in the long term, not just one which, through present circumstances, is temporarily convenient.
The month of May creates issues with elections for devolved institutions which others will raise, but May is not often an ideal general election date. Campaigns fought over April almost inevitably run into the barriers of Easter and school holidays. Asking party workers to campaign through these periods and then to give up their May Day bank holiday seems unnecessarily clumsy. Of course, an election fought on the first Thursday in October would also have its drawbacks. It would require us, for instance, to abandon our party conferences, but somehow I feel that the electorate would find it in their hearts to forgive us.
Underlying the Bill is the decision to take away from the Prime Minister the right to choose the election date. I can recall very few occasions in recent years when Prime Ministers have given up anything, let alone a key prerogative such as this. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, on that-I believe that this is an entirely genuine matter. I am all in favour of the Executive giving up powers to Parliament. I think that we should have more of it and I applaud the Prime Minister for taking this step.
In any event, Prime Ministers are often very poor at taking these decisions about election timing. They gather their soothsayers, the entrails are extracted, the runes are read and, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, pointed out, still they make a mess of it. How different might things have been. Ted Heath going to the polls in February 1974; Jim Callaghan not going in October 1978; Gordon Brown too-how might history have been rewritten if they had made different decisions?
There is an inherent uncertainty that accompanies all elections; that is one of the many splendours of democracy. After Winston Churchill's extraordinary election defeat in 1945, his wife, Clementine, tried to comfort him. "Darling, it is a blessing in disguise", she said. "If it is a blessing", the old man said, "it is very well disguised". The Bill contains many blessings, even if at times some of them seem to be rather well disguised.
Lord McAvoy: My Lords, I will bear in mind the time and the fact that many more experienced colleagues than me have spoken. First, I join the massed ranks of those welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to our midst. I, too, have happy and sound memories of him in another place and I am quite sure that over the next months and years, there will be at least one or two causes that we will be completely united on.
I want to take head-on the point made by noble Peers, but particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, that the Labour Party had fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto. I think that we had that in 1992, but I was a bit closer in 2010 to the formulation of the general election strategy, policy and manifesto issues. I remember that from right back to 1992 and right up to 2010, there was always the spoken assumption that there would be pre-legislative scrutiny and a full process of Green Papers, White Papers and draft Bills. That was always inherent in it, so I do not think that we have anything to hide in indicating that the Labour Party followed that. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, might be being a bit optimistic in thinking that
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Once again, what we have here is an abuse of the House of Lords. We have a constitutional Bill being rammed through this place without a single jot of notice being given to its conventions. I am well aware-because I was told often enough-that the new incomers from the other place over the past year or so breached the conventions of this place. There is some justification in that charge but, in answer to it, the circumstances must be borne in mind. The Government had thrown away all the conventions. The anger felt at that was certainly reflected on these Benches. I have learnt not to be too robust in this place, but it is a bit of a cheek for people to complain about others breaching conventions when they have provoked the anger. That is a fact of life. There are supposed to be 14 days between Committee stage and Report stage; with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill we got a day's notice. I do not want to go over old ground. I am just making the point that this Bill must be seen in that context.
What we see here is the Liberal party's obsession with tinkering with the constitution and coming up with systems, rather than democracy and paying attention to the true needs of people. Take the record of the Liberal party every time it is put in a position where it can gain something for itself. I go back to the formulation of the Scottish devolution policy between the Labour Party, the Liberal party and other parties in Scotland, except the Conservatives and the SNP. It was crucial that we got consensus at that time, and crucial that we got the Liberals on side. We got them on side but at the price of giving two seats-that is, preferential treatment-to Orkney and Shetland. That was the first instance that I saw of the Liberals using a position for their own political gain.
There was then the situation where Mr Clegg was in a position where he could blackmail another party when two parties were bidding for him to form a coalition. What does he get out of it? He gets out of it constitutional matters-the greatest reform since 1832. He says that it will be a "big bang" for the constitution that has served this country well for hundreds of years-all driven by the Liberals. When they get into a position where they can control and blackmail other parties, they use it to the full. Folk should be aware of that. The be all and end all of this is that if they get AV-God forbid that they should win-we will have maybe not Mr Clegg but a Liberal as Deputy Prime Minister. Where is the democracy there? Where is the paying heed to people and making sure that there is democracy?
Speaking as a reasonably active former Whip, I would have loved to have 14 days to deal with a government defeat and fix the situation. By rights, the Government should resign after being defeated, especially on an important matter. My noble friend Lady Taylor is a former government Chief Whip in the Commons; I served many years with her. We are talking about 14 days to fix something and do all sorts of things-all in a persuasive and kindly way, naturally-to make
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The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, was, I think, the only one from the Conservative side who gave unconditional support to the Bill. Having persuaded many a colleague to speak in the House of Commons in particular situations, I recognise a press-ganged Member when I see one. I mean no disrespect to the noble Baroness but I certainly recognise the symptoms.
The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Norton of Louth, made unanswerable cases. One of them was perhaps political but the other constituted an absolutely clinical, methodical and systematic dismantling of the Bill. I offer a word of warning to Conservative colleagues who may think that they can pay the blackmailer once and he or she will go away. However, I assure them that they will return again and again until their party is absolutely demolished.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I was interested to hear that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, thinks that we will be able to demolish the Conservative Party in future. We might demolish the Labour Party as well-who knows?-and then we will have achieved our goal in life. However, at the moment we are in coalition and we shall be loyal members of the coalition.
This has indeed been a very interesting debate. The one thing that has united everybody who has taken part is the importance of the Bill. It is a slim but important Bill. I am strongly in favour of the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, which forms the basis of the Bill. I believe that the power of a Prime Minister to seek a Dissolution is a democratic outrage and should have been abolished long ago. As noble Lords will know, I am also strongly in favour of this House doing its job properly and of the practicalities of this legislation being properly scrutinised and discussed in this House. I hope that that will happen and that we will not again witness the fairly deplorable events that occurred during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I am not at this stage pointing the finger at anybody. The House got itself into a huge tangle on that and, as they always say, it takes two to tangle. I do not believe that the Government were blameless although my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness played a blinder during that Bill.
The principle of this legislation has been Liberal Party and Liberal Democrat policy for decades. If anybody suggests that we have just invented it for party political advantage, that is complete nonsense. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who is not in his place, said that the Liberal Democrats have an obsession with constitutional reform. Constitutional reform has certainly formed a very important part of our party policy and our party election manifestos for as long as I can remember. If we are now in a position to try to do something about that, we shall do so. It has been pointed out that it is also a Labour manifesto commitment-I assume that it is still Labour Party policy-that the principle we are discussing is correct.
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I listened with great interest to the fluent, eloquent and interesting speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and to those of other speakers. I listened carefully to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who is not in his place, and to that of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, who said that he was not persuaded by the Bill. I think that is his normal way of saying that he is completely against it but we will find that out. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that he was against all change. He thought that our constitution was wonderful and marvellous and that it should not be messed about with at all. Having listened to the speeches of a number of Labour Members, I got the impression that they could not imagine that anything different from what happens now was remotely desirable. We have seen on the part of quite a lot of Members the deep well of conservatism which exists within the Labour Party on constitutional matters. It was not always thus. Robin Cook was a pioneer in constitutional reform and the Cook-Maclennan agreement formed the basis of a lot of what the Labour Government did in the years after 1997 in setting up the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, changing the role of the Lord Chancellor, introducing changes in this House and, indeed, in phase 1 reform of your Lordships' House.
So there was an agenda there-it was a radical agenda but in latter years the Labour Government ran out of steam. We need to know what Labour policy is now and specifically what its policy on a fixed-term Parliament is. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that the proposal had a high-minded aim. I agree with that but he then went on to say it is damaging and at the end of his speech he said it is an utter disaster and it is messing up the British constitution. Well, let us put on one side the way in which the legislation has been brought in. We have a job to do here-
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I did not say, I am afraid, it had "a high-minded aim". I said there is very little to be said for this Bill and that it seeks to dress up as a piece of high-minded constitutional reform the chronic mistrust that the two parties, in my view correctly, have for each other. It is my fault for not expressing it clearly but I certainly was not intending to say it had a high-minded aim.
Lord Greaves: I am grateful for that correction but the noble and learned Lord allowed me to use the words. I believe it has a high-minded aim and it is something with which we agree. However, we still need to know, as a basis for our discussions in Committee and at following stages, what the Labour Party would like to do. What policies would the Labour Party be putting forward on this if it was still the Government? We have been told that we have to operate on the basis of what Mr Asquith said 100 years ago. Well, no one has greater admiration than me for the achievements of the great Liberal Governments in the eight years before the Great War. Really, things have changed a little bit in the past 100 years and if we are to argue on
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Does the right of the Prime Minister to call an election give the Prime Minister a great advantage? We are being asked to believe that it does not. Whether or not it does it certainly dominates politics in the months and sometimes years leading up to a general election. It dominates politics, in my view, in a very undesirable way. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that Mr Blair and Mrs Thatcher were evidence that it did not work. They between them fought five elections, I think, and won them all as Prime Ministers. That is a very strange argument.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, in a very thoughtful speech from her position as chairman of the Constitution Committee, said that what we need is more accountable Government. I agree that Governments need to be much more accountable than they are now and have been for as long as I have known-and I think that the position has probably got worse over the years-but I believe that that accountability is far more to do with the relationship between government and Parliament; both Houses, but particularly the House of Commons. We have a convention here. One cannot be too acerbic in one's criticism of the House of Commons so I am not going to be. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, is encouraging me to be critical. I am very critical of the way the House of Commons works. I do not think it holds the Government to account properly. There have been some recent changes which are beneficial but I believe that that whole area is far more important than whether it is elected for four or five years. I am disappointed at the way in which the coalition Government have related to Parliament. I understand why-the enthusiasm of new brooms wanting to sweep clean and wanting to get things done but I believe that they have been careless. In some areas they have been too bullying and I believe that is probably coming to an end now. I hope it is; we will see. It is up to Members of Parliament in both Houses to stand firm and say this must not continue. I believe that slowly that is beginning to happen.
We have a system in this country where people elect Parliaments. I know that a lot of people think that they are voting for the Prime Minister. At the previous election, the single most common telephone call made to the election department in my own area of Pendle was from people who had postal votes and were ringing up to find out why they could not find the names Cameron, Clegg and Brown on the ballot paper.
Lord Greaves: I do not think that people in my part of the world are any more stupid than anywhere else, but scores of such telephone calls were being made all over the country. We have moved to a more presidential system in recent years, but we nevertheless elect the House of Commons and not the Government. It is up
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A number of important issues will have to be discussed. For example, what constitutes a vote of confidence must be clear. However, once that is clear, all the talk about what happened in 1895-I think that it was the vote of no confidence in Campbell-Bannerman and the attempt to take away his wages-as well as in 1910 and 1951, will become irrelevant. What will be important is what people think and know they must do in order to express no confidence in the Government. That must be absolutely clear, but it will then define the behaviour of politicians in the House of Commons.
I do not believe that whether the fixed term should be four years or five years is a major issue; other people do. I was fascinated by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, talking about biorhythms. I know that when I am going through a low patch my wife always looks up the book of biorhythms and tells me what is happening. If that does not work, she looks at the phases of the moon. I say to her, "Well, it's to do with the viruses I've got in my head. It's the head-cold viruses, or perhaps it is just to do with the latest government announcement I don't agree with". I am not quite sure that parliamentary biorhythms are much to do with it, but I shall be interested to hear more about that fascinating theory.
It has been said that the average length of Parliament since the war has been three years and 10 months, which I assume is true, but that has been utterly distorted by the fact that there were three very short Parliaments in 1950, 1964 and 1974. If one takes those out, the average rises to something over four years.
Of course, it can be argued, as we will do, that having a longer Parliament gives the House of Commons more time to scrutinise what the Government are doing. That is a perfectly good argument to use if Parliament is doing its job properly. At least, if one knows when a general election is going to be, one of the democratic outrages of Parliament, the wash-up, will not take place That is when Bills which have often had little or no scrutiny are nodded through behind closed doors by the parliamentary parties, leading to a lot of bad legislation. If the wash-up is done away with, that is a good thing.
The clash of election dates is a very important issue which we will have to discuss. I do not believe that the new system will, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, suggested in different words, allow the Prime Minister to fiddle when he wants an election anyway, because discussion on it will have been taken out of the context and dynamic of the politics of the time.
I hope that we will not have a major trial of strength over this Bill. There are very important issues to discuss. It may take some time to scrutinise the Bill in Committee, but I hope that it will all be done constructively on both sides. I have great confidence that the Government will be prepared to approach it in that way. I hope that the Opposition will do so, too.
Lord Howard of Rising: My Lords, I must first apologise to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, for missing the first moments of his speech, although I was in time to admire the patience with which he dealt with interventions.
Many good points have been made during the debate, including those made by my noble friend Lord Cormack, whom I join in welcoming. I will not waste your Lordships' time in respect of all the points that have been raised, but I would like to touch on one aspect embodied by this Bill: the increase in the power of the Executive at the expense of the power of Parliament.
Any action which takes away the ability of Parliament to call the Executive to account is a retrograde step. Put simply, this proposal to have a fixed-term Parliament for five years is an erosion of the power of Parliament to call the Executive to account, because whatever way it is dressed up it reduces the ability of Parliament to shorten the life of a Government.
The Government claim that by taking away from the Prime Minister the ability to choose a propitious moment to recommend to the Sovereign that an election be called, the timing of an election is made fairer. That may be so, although except for a few inconsequential bodies I cannot recall this being an issue of much interest to anyone, and certainly no one much outside of Westminster. In any event, the argument was put firmly in its place by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others. As has been pointed out by noble Lords, it would be a simple matter for a Prime Minister to get around this in any event by arranging to lose a vote of no confidence. The price being exacted for this supposed benefit is to make it more difficult for Parliament to call for a change of Government.
A further benefit being claimed is that it makes the scheduling of government business easier, but the easier life is for Government, the more difficult it is for Parliament to exercise proper control over the actions of the Executive.
The Government claim in answer to the report by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that this Bill gives the House of Commons a fundamental constitutional power which it currently does not possess, namely to require that there be an early general election. Reading those words I am not sure whether I have entered the world of Alice in Wonderland or Animal Farm. As noble Lords have already pointed out, the House of Commons already has the power to force the Prime Minister to call an election. A simple majority on a vote of no confidence and down go the Government.
To pretend that a vote for Dissolution by two-thirds of the Members of Parliament is an increase in the power of Parliament is absurd. As for introducing a 14-day cooling off period, the mind boggles. I am sure the present Government would never stoop so low, but imagine the cornucopia of inducements, together with the bullying, which a future Government might carry out during those 14 days. We might even get a few more Dukes in this House.
In recent years too much power has been taken by the Executive at the expense of Parliament. For example, in the 50 years between 1947 and 1997 time-limiting, or guillotine, Motions were used 136 times-that's
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"Every bill now has a "programme motion" setting out how much time can be spent scrutinising and debating each part. These are automatic guillotines, and the time allowed for scrutiny is set in advance, before anyone can see whether a particular issue is contentious or complex. Watching a minister in the Commons drawing out one point for an hour to fill the time, to an audience of dozing backbenchers-this is not accountability. How has the mother of all parliaments turned itself into such a pliant child?
If we're serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it's time to strengthen parliament so it can properly hold the government to account on behalf of voters. The House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable, so there is time for proper scrutiny and debate".
"Fixed term parliaments are undoubtedly a major constitutional change and it is proper that people should express their views. That is why there will be a Bill with full and proper debate in Parliament. Indeed, because I have pledged to abolish programme motions for legislation-known as 'guillotines'-Parliament will have more time to scrutinise this Bill than they would have done under Labour".
What did the House of Commons get? As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, pointed out earlier, it got a programmed Bill which was hurried through the Commons amidst complaints from Members of Parliament.
Where is the respect of Parliament? In spite of the fine words, there is none. The Bill before us today is a further limitation of the power of Parliament to call the Administration to account. This House, as one of the Houses of Parliament, must act as a protector of the power of elected Members of Parliament and not as a poodle of the Executive.
Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, I add my voice to all those who welcomed the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and congratulate him on his maiden speech. I am very pleased that he has become a Member of this House. We go back a very long way. We were at school together. I was well under his radar. He was head boy and I was a recalcitrant first-year pupil. But after he left he endowed an essay prize that I happened to win one year. I still have the Oxford Book of Latin Verse, which was the PT Cormack essay prize. I should own up that I also have his copy of Livy's histories, which after 49 years I suppose I should remember to return to him someday.
One of the constant refrains of recent political commentary over the past two or three years-and the reasons are fairly obvious-is that we have to accept that Parliament and Government need to be made more accountable to the people. My objection to the Bill as currently drafted is that it weakens that accountability. It is fairly easy to see why.
I want to make the case by focusing on a change of Administration during a fixed-term Parliament under the terms set out in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, the constitutional convention is that a Prime Minister, for example, can succeed another Prime Minister but only if he or she is capable of leading an Administration with the confidence of the House of Commons. It is the Members of Parliament who elect or choose the Prime Minister, not the population at large. Given that the Prime Minister has to have the confidence of Parliament, he or she can succeed an incumbent Prime Minister in a perfectly legitimate way.
That has been the normal process of British politics since the Second World War-so Churchill succeeded Chamberlain, Eden succeeded Churchill, Macmillan succeeded Eden, Lord Home succeeded Macmillan, Callaghan succeeded Wilson, Brown succeeded Blair, and Major succeeded the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher. In only one of those cases-namely when Eden succeeded Churchill-was there an early general election to confirm the mandate of the new Prime Minister. In all these cases without an early election, excepting that particular case, it seemed perfectly fair, reasonable and legitimate that the new Prime Minister came into office because that was in accordance with the constitutional convention.
In the case of Gordon Brown succeeding Tony Blair, the assumption came seriously into question in the media, in the polls, in quite a lot of political commentary in the newspapers and among politicians themselves. It was argued that somehow this succession lacked legitimacy, although it was exactly comparable to previous changes I have mentioned. I suspect the reason is not just political opportunism-although that no doubt played a fairly important part-but because over the past 20 years or so there has been something of a change in public opinion and the electorate are not so ready to accept that Government can and should emerge just through intra-parliamentary debate and deal-making. People want to have a bit more of a say in the outcome. After all, there are many more opportunities for non-political voting in a straightforward sense through interactive television, newspaper polls virtually every day of the week on some public issue and so on. Yet, many people now feel rather distant from Parliament when someone can become Prime Minister without them having voted for him. I fully accept and understand the account of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of the constitutional position. However, I think that position may be leaving behind a bit the way in which society more generally is evolving.
If there is some truth in the idea that people are demanding more of a political say, then I think this Bill-particularly if the AV vote turns out to be positive -is going to cause us great problems, because it is going to insulate the processes of intra-parliamentary politics more and more from public opinion. If we have AV, we are going to have more coalitions; and a coalition can change part of the way through a fixed-term Parliament and possibly without the same priorities as its predecessor. I doubt whether the electorate would regard this as acceptable. It is fashionable at the moment to decry the idea of the mandate-one can see that it is very difficult at the moment for the Government to claim a mandate in the sense that people have not
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I will finish on a point made by someone who has always had a great interest in constitutional reform and has been a member of the Liberal Democrats, Professor David Marquand, who once described Westminster politics as club politics. I always thought that was a very exaggerated account of Westminster politics. If you got into the position of having a series of coalitions arising during a fixed-term Parliament, without a straightforward appeal to the electorate, that would be club politics of the worst possible kind. At the very least, this Bill needs to be amended to remove the 14-day clause on the vote of confidence because that allows the possibility of a constant renewal of a coalition to occur, which I just do not think that the British people will accept.
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I shall be very brief because most points have already been made. I start by echoing what has been said by way of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The number of noble Lords who have told anecdotes about his past implies that he will feel very much at home here, as I am sure will be the case.
I acknowledge, as one or two noble Lords have done, that the Labour Party policy in its manifesto was in favour of a four-year fixed-term Parliament. That is not a policy that has ever excited me, but to suggest that because of that specific manifesto commitment we should now support this entirely different Bill is, to my mind, total nonsense. My starting point is quite simple: any proposal to change the British constitution, as this Bill does, should be coherent, should have public support, should be subject to wide consultation and, as far as possible, should be based on consensus. The onus should be on those who are proposing change to prove that those conditions have been met and that what is proposed is an improvement. To my mind, this Bill fails both tests. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer proved, it is constitutional change for party-political convenience because neither side in the coalition trusts the other and they need what he described as glue to bind them together. That is a pretty sorry state of affairs and certainly not one of high constitutional principle.
In opening the debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, said that the political system needs to be reinvigorated. With due respect, I do not think that this Bill will achieve that. I do not know about the Minister's former constituents when he was in another
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The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, has been welcomed as the Minister leading for the Government on this Bill. I endorse that welcome. As we saw with the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it is true that he is considered to be the user-friendly Minister for the Government on these matters and he stepped in when others had exhausted any goodwill that they had. I hope that he retains that reputation, but to do so it is important that he listens to the genuine concerns about this Bill that have been expressed on all sides of the House, not just from these Benches. The concern is genuine and I am afraid that the letter mentioned by my noble friend Lord Anderson, which the noble and learned Lord sent implying endorsement by the Select Committee, was not a reassuring start. I hope that he will be reasonable and listen to these concerns so that we can have a very constructive Committee stage.
Briefly, my concerns are twofold: one is about the content of the Bill and the other is about the context in which the Bill is being introduced. I object to fixed five-year Parliaments. I was somewhat surprised at the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, earlier when he said that anything other than a five-year Parliament could not achieve anything. I thought back to the 1966-1970 Government and the Open University, which is a glaring example of a fantastic achievement and, although I disagreed with many of their policies, I do not think that many people would say that the 1979-1983 Thatcher Government did not have, in their own way, a great number of achievements.
People say that the term has to be of five years so that we can have more achievements, but why? The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said that it has to be five years because it would save money for political parties. On that basis, why not make it six or seven years? What is so magical about five years? The point in the Constitution Committee's report, about how many elections we would have had had there been five-year terms since the war, was a very telling one. We need to maintain contact with the electorate as much as possible.
My main very serious concern-and here I follow the noble Lord, Lord Plant-is about the mechanisms and complications that arise from making a vote of confidence more complex. I will leave aside for the moment the concerns expressed by the Clerk of the Commons-though, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, pointed out earlier, these are things that we might have to come back to because there could be difficulties. I did not find the Minister very convincing in his earlier comments. For example, the Minister did not give a very satisfactory answer to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, about the use of the 14-day mechanism. I am still not very sure whether this 14-day mechanism is supposed to be a cooling-off or hotting-up period. As a former Chief Whip, I perhaps should not have enjoyed the relish with which my noble friend spoke about how a Government might use those 14 days. However, clearly, Members opposite
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However, on the other hand, when you think of the source of this idea, as was mentioned earlier, maybe 14 days is simply designed as a mechanism for one partner in a coalition to try to persuade a different partner to enter a new coalition and form an entirely different kind of majority in the Commons without an election. Either way, the deal would be done without any reference to the electorate whatsoever, which is the case with any coalition. If the alternative is the simple and obvious one of a general election, I am a long way from accepting the 14-day concept. When MPs vote on a vote of confidence-and I am one of a relatively small number of people who have done that-they know that they are voting for or against a general election. It is as simple as that. My noble friend Lord Grocott was there on that very significant night in 1979-as I was-when there was a vote of confidence. This is my main concern with the Bill. There are many others that will need clarification.
I have one specific question for the Minister that I hope he can clarify. Provision in Clause 1(5) says that the Prime Minister can make an order for a general election to be brought forward or delayed by two months -the so-called foot and mouth provision. I can understand why, if there is a foot and mouth outbreak, as in 2001, an election might be delayed. What are the circumstances, however, in which a crisis can be anticipated so that the election has to be brought forward two months? If you can anticipate in February that you will have to have an election in March, is it a crisis? I hope this question can be answered and my mind set at rest.
There are many other small points. As the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, asked, why May? What he did not mention is that, if the election is in May, there is always the problem of juggling the scrutiny of the Budget provisions in the other place because the Budget is traditionally in April. I could ask why Thursday and not the weekend, but that is not the point that we are discussing now.
That is a wonderfully calm understatement. We have already had some legislation with a high degree of controversy because of a lack of consultation. Indeed, the committee, in its fantastic report, pointed out the possibilities of the difficulties with a five-year boundary and a five-year Parliament and them being out sync. It is a recipe for chaos.
My real problem is that we are seeing a whole ragbag of proposals from this Government, with AV brought forward with a referendum, legislation reducing the number of seats of another place and talk of recall
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If the Government want to make changes to the British constitution in so many different and fundamental ways, they should take a step back. The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, wants a codified constitution. I do not think that I do-but if we are going to have change, we must have coherent change. To do that, you need to take a step back and have a royal commission and you need to have debates on terms of reference. You cannot rush through significant constitutional proposals in this way and expect to get things right. The law of unintended consequences will come in here, and we will see great difficulties arising in future.
Finally, it was interesting that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, in describing the role of this House, mentioned the phrase "guardianship of the constitution". It is a phrase that has echoed around this Chamber this evening, and many people realise their responsibility in that respect. I hope that this House lives up to that billing on this legislation and, indeed, on any other constitutional changes that this Government bring forward.
Lord Bach: My Lords, here we are again, less than two weeks have passed and here we are, debating another constitutional Bill, claimed by the Government to make a long-term constitutional change based on principle, thought through, properly considered, well researched and thoroughly argued in another place, but which in reality-as nearly everyone acknowledges-is a short-term measure, with its driving force the political necessity of the coalition and its need, given the desperate lack of confidence between its parties, to ensure that it survives until at least May 2015. In other words, it is a short-term political fix masquerading as serious constitutional reform. Of what other Bill-I ask rhetorically of course, but I may give a clue-what other Act of Parliament does that remind noble Lords?
In these circumstances, it is perhaps not too surprising that the Bill is so deficient in so many ways. From the choice of five-year terms to the lack of any clarity on the issue of confidence Motions, the Bill looks what it is-a ridiculously hurried, unconsulted-on piece of rushed legislation, whose consequences, if it were passed unamended, might well be dire for our constitution. Surely our duty, as a revising House, is clear; we must do all we can to improve the Bill, to build up consensus around the House that says that the Bill in its present state is deeply unsatisfactory. The least the House can expect-and here I really am looking at the Minister-is that the Government remain open-minded to sensible changes. Not just Ministers in this House-I am sure they are open-minded to sensible changes-I mean the Government as a whole.
Having set out the Opposition Front Bench's view, let me say, in case I should be accused of being a trifle negative, that the Second Reading has given rise to an excellent debate. It would have been surprising, given the expertise, experience and indeed wisdom of noble Lords who have spoken, if the debate had not been good. There have been some very powerful speeches on all sides of the House; it would be quite invidious to pick out any in particular. However, I do want to say that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was very impressive indeed. For those of us who have not heard him speak before, either in another place or elsewhere, it was a breath of fresh air to hear what he had to say. The House very much appreciated the way in which he said it and looks forward to hearing a lot from him in the months and years to come.
A whole number of issues have been raised but there are three I wish to concentrate on. The first is whether the practical effect of the Bill as drafted would be seriously to circumscribe a Prime Minister's powers or whether the Bill allows, frankly, for a coach and horses to be driven through the principle of a fixed-term Parliament. My noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton and others too have dealt effectively with this issue. Having listened to nearly 30 speeches, no noble Lord has been brave enough to attempt any serious criticism of my noble and learned friend's analysis of the Bill in this regard. It is sad but true that any consideration of how Prime Ministers are likely to act in the future should start from a fairly cynical viewpoint. If legislation allows Prime Ministers to behave badly then I am afraid to say that there will be occasions when they do behave badly. Mr Harper in Canada is no worse or better in that respect. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, said, any Act of Parliament based on this Bill would inevitably be stretched as far as it could be and then perhaps-and here I am speaking rather than the noble Lord-a little bit further too if the survival of a particular Prime Minister was in question.
Secondly, there is the issue of four or five years. That is a very significant issue, not a minor one, which goes to the heart of the Bill. We do not think that the Government have ever really even begun to explain why five years is to be preferred. The consensus, not universal of course, is that four years is to be preferred. I accept that the Liberal Democrat Benches have been loyal to a man and that the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, and also perhaps, on occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, have been in support of the Bill. No other Conservative was actually very supportive at all. Both Select Committees, in our House and in the other place, came out in favour of four years. Academic opinion seems overwhelmingly in favour of four years, yet the Government say five.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked us, the Labour Opposition, to adhere to the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. Perhaps he should ask his colleagues why they are not adhering to their commitment to four-year fixed Parliaments. We all know about the Liberal Democrat policy paper of 2007 in favour of a four-year fixed Parliament. Even more telling was David Howarth's Private Member's Bill, whose Second Reading was heard on 16 May 2008 in another place. That Bill was
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That is pretty simple and clear. When the Bill was published in December 2007, who supported David Howarth? It is a stellar list. It has Westminster glitterati of the highest order, who would grace any Oscar shortlist. Let me remind the House who supported that proposition by supporting that Bill in print. First, there was David Heath, now the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. There were two who are now Cabinet Ministers: the right honourable Chris Huhne and the right honourable Danny Alexander both put their signatures to that Bill. There were two who are now junior Ministers, as I understand it, Ms Featherstone and Mr Burstow. Then there was the Colin Firth of the list, the Oscar winner himself who is now the Deputy Prime Minister, the right honourable Nick Clegg.
All those Members of another place put their name to a Bill that was clearly stating four-year fixed Parliaments. I pose the question: what has changed all their minds so that within three years they are voting for a five-year period, attacking a four-year period and arguing strongly for the five years. Not just one but all of them seem to have changed their minds simultaneously. Is it some sort of Pauline conversion on the road to Whitehall?
Lord Greaves: The noble Lord is having his bit of fun. I think he has come to the end of it now. It is of course a matter of whether noble Lords think four years or five years is fundamental or not. I understand that they do. Will the noble Lord now answer the basic question that the noble Lord asked: do he and his party still support the principle of fixed-term Parliaments?
Lord Bach: I will of course be more than happy to answer the noble Lord's question. I was waiting for it. We have not changed our position on the Front Bench since the last election-an election, I remind the House, that we lost. We support fixed-term Parliaments. Thus we are doubly disappointed by this disaster of a Bill, which has been rushed through with no proper consultation-no real consultation at all-and thus got so many vital, important things entirely wrong. First, on five years instead of four and, secondly, on the no-confidence safety valve, as it is called. That is drafted in a completely unsatisfactory way. It is unclear and, indeed, may turn out to protect the power of a Prime Minister so that there is no point at all in a fixed-term Parliament in any event. I hope that answers the noble Lord's query.
Lord Grocott: I wonder whether my noble friend will give way for what I hope he will think is a helpful suggestion. Although he is quite right in describing the Labour Party's current position in the aftermath of a general election commitment, any prudent party,
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Lord Bach: My noble friend is certainly right in one regard; it was not an election winner. On the other hand, I understand that the main opposition party is quite rightly considering all its policies, bearing in mind that it is in opposition and is likely to be in opposition for a little while longer.
I had not quite finished my fun, so perhaps I should not have given way to the noble Lord opposite so quickly. I hope that it will not be ungallant to suggest that this simultaneous change of mind might have something to do with the aftermath of the 2010 general election and the need to have a short-term arrangement that has the best chance of sticking for five years. If that is what was intended, fair enough. Political parties are absolutely entitled to come together on whatever terms they like, but why is there a need to cover up this short-term political necessity with a Bill that will change our constitution for ever? Let me be fair. At least those distinguished Members of Parliament took a little time to change their minds, unlike the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister, who, as we have heard during the debate, suggested right in the middle of the election campaign that, far from fixed-term Parliaments, when a new Prime Minister took office there should be legislation insisting on a fresh general election within six months. I ask what has made him change his mind.
On this issue, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, and, in my view, our Constitution Committee, got it right. The noble Lord talked about the biorhythms of our national politics. I think I understood what he meant, even if the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, did not. He said that five years does not capture it, and he seems to have got that precisely right. Our Constitution Committee dealt very thoroughly with this issue at paragraphs 62 and 63 of its report, from which I shall quote:
"Whilst acknowledging the case made by the Deputy Prime Minister for a five year term, nonetheless the majority of the Committee consider that a four year term should be adopted for any fixed-term Parliamentary arrangement at Westminster. In the view of the majority, the shift from a five year maximum to a five year norm would be 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".
I say to that: game, set and match. The response so far to the Constitution Committee report is, by any test, very weak. To set out as part of that response a number of countries that have a five-year maximum is hardly the point.
My final point-and I am sorry that I have gone on for so long-is that many of the problems could have been solved if the Government had not rushed this legislation. It is such an obvious point and it has been made by many noble Lords, but it is worth repeating. At least, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, with the AV Bill, whatever we may have thought of it,
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I hope that the noble and learned Lord will spend a little time explaining why it is necessary for this Bill to go through Parliament without any outside consultation. We are told that when the next piece of constitutional legislation comes along-the Lords reform Bill-there will be pre-legislative scrutiny and the full works will be brought out, and quite right, too, but if for that, why not for this? I could mention the large number of noble Lords who have raised this point in one way or another during the debate.
In Chapter 5 of its report, our Constitution Committee absolutely slaughtered, if I may use the expression, the Government's arguments for this legislation. Of course, it did so in parliamentary language and absolutely appropriately. If noble Lords think I am being high minded about this, I am not. I was the Minister who received our Constitution Committee's report on the CRaG Bill, and only that Bill got a worse press than this one from our very much respected Constitution Committee, so I sympathise with the noble and learned Lord. I know what it is like after such a Second Reading when the whole world-apart, of course, from the Liberal Democrats-has been against you. I know what it is like, but the Constitution Committee has been absolutely clear and I do not want to allow the agony to continue by quoting from the report. The Minister and others on the Front Bench know exactly what it says.
I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will agree that our Select Committee criticised the Bill in a powerful and fundamental way. It did not believe, first of all, that the case for fixed-term Parliaments had been made. It did not believe that the case for five years rather than four had been made, and it severely criticised the Government for not taking time to consult and think more about the Bill. It is a pretty comprehensive attack, and the response, which I know the House was grateful to receive before Second Reading, is laughable. The letter from the Minister was well meant, but it was making the very best of a pretty bad job.
I end by asking the Minister what the Government's serious answers are to the criticisms made by the Select Committee and many noble Lords around the House today. Why the urgency for the Bill? Surely what should happen now is that the Government should take the Bill away, consult on it and come back with a proper and suitable Bill for our consideration. Surely our constitution is vital enough not to be the plaything of temporary politicians who are just a little too eager to get power and much, much too eager to keep it.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I join those who have indicated that this has been a very good debate. The House has had the benefit of the experience of many people, from academia and from the other place, who have taken part in votes of confidence-or
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Congratulations are also in order to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. Although he said that he was a former Whip, I understand that he has recently been appointed to the Whips' Bench opposite and I congratulate him on that very rapid rise, which no doubt reflects his abilities as a Whip. That is meant to be a compliment.
We have heard a variety of views, from those who are opposed in principle to this, through to those who are very supportive of it and to those who are supportive of it, but want to see things done in different ways. There are those who have indicated that they do not wish any change whatever. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, indicated a level of satisfaction with a constitution that he did not think needed changing. My noble and learned friend Lord Howe expressed the view that he was getting somewhat sceptical about constitutional change, but I am grateful to a number of my noble friends who indicated their support in principle. My noble friend Lady Stowell indicated that it was not necessarily a silver bullet, but nevertheless was an important contribution to try to revitalise our political system.
My noble friend Lord Dobbs had a slightly interesting, but very practical, explanation as to why he supported this, not least in terms of party finance. That may not seem the most obvious reason why one would support it, but for those of us who think back to the debates we had on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill, the point was made on more than one occasion that political parties oil the wheel of democracy and my noble friend made an important point. Certainly, under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, there is a regulation of national campaign spending for 12 months before the actual date of poll. Therefore, it is probably preferable that the parties can have a fixed idea of when that is likely to be, rather than have to guess.
This is important because it lends that stability. It particularly lends stability, as my noble friend Lord Marks said, on occasions when there is a coalition Government. It allows Governments and Parliaments to plan for the long term. I take issue with those who say that it does not give the Prime Minister an advantage. Our late colleague Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who chaired the Constitution Select Committee with distinction
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The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, although opposed to what is happening and sceptical about the arguments about the Prime Minister, also made the point about the Prime Minister being able to use Dissolution as a threat. It is not only about occasions when Dissolution has been sought by a Prime Minister, it is often about occasions when it was not sought, but was there nevertheless.
I disagree with those who think that this is a shift to the Executive. I believe that neutralising the threat that the Prime Minister has to hang Dissolution over his Back-Benchers may indeed strengthen Back-Benchers, rather than weaken them. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising, took the view that the Bill does not do what I claim it does; namely, that we believe it should transfer power from the Executive to Parliament.
I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, acknowledged that it was the Prime Minister giving up a prerogative that he has had the power to exercise for many years. I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising that the objective must be to shift power from the Executive to Parliament. That is why I believe the Bill helps. This is a Bill that gives Parliament, not the Prime Minister or the Executive, the opportunity to decide when there should be an early general election. That is because of the flexibility, which I will come back to. No longer will the Executive be able to use the threat of a Dissolution against Parliament or their own Back-Benchers.
It is worth remembering that there have quite properly been references to the report of our own Constitution Select Committee. I also remind the House that the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the other place, in its report on the Bill, said:
"It is questionable whether a Prime Minister should be able to use his position in government to give him and his party an electoral advantage by choosing to hold the next general election to a schedule that best suits him. We therefore acknowledge the principle behind the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill".
My noble friend Lord Norton asked about public demand. I am the first to say that it is not the question that comes up first at hustings. I am sure it was not the issue that lost the Labour Party the election last May. However, as the Constitution Select Committee report points out, the issue has been on the constitutional reform agenda for the past 20 years. The report refers to a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research in 1991; a commitment in the Labour Party manifesto in 1992; Private Members' Bills, which have been referred to, in 2001 and 2008; Liberal Democrat policy documents; and the Liberal Democrat manifestos of 1992 and 1997. As my noble friend Lady Stowell indicated, an opinion poll from 2009-at the height of the expenses scandal-showed considerable public support for the idea of a fixed-term Parliament. As far back as 1998, Professor Blackburn, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in the other place,
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"But if I could finally select just one reform of election law which does carry popular backing and probably also substantial parliamentary support. This is our system of General Election timing which is an extremely important matter in electioneering terms and which clearly operates to the advantage of the government of the day ... The trick is to avoid those times when you are unpopular so far as you can. I believe this Committee"-
I listened to and take on board the criticisms regarding the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny. As I think I indicated when we dealt with the previous Bill, it is very difficult to have pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill in a first Session. Noble Lords will remember that the original proposal was to have a binding resolution. That was not proceeded with. It was suggested by some of those who have contributed to the debate that it was questionable whether it would be binding. I certainly do not accept the view that was put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Elystan-Morgan, that the simplest thing would be for the Prime Minister to make a declaration. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, then qualified that by saying, "unless in exceptional circumstances we could not go on to 7 May 2015". That is the point. It would continue the possible uncertainty. One of the reasons for legislating is to make it clear that that would be the position: there will be an election on 7 May 2015, unless the trigger mechanisms come into play.
I welcome the fact that the Constitution Committee will look at the process for constitutional reform. It occurred to me that if a Parliament could not do much in the way of legislation in its first Session-it is not just constitutional Bills that call for pre-legislative scrutiny-there would not be much time to do much business at all, particularly since a four-year fixed term of Parliament has also been advocated. There will always be that tension as regards legislation that is introduced in the first year of a Parliament. We look forward to the Constitution Committee's report on the process that it will recommend for constitutional legislation.
I had not anticipated my noble friend Lord Dobbs asking why the election should be held in May as opposed to June or October. The simple answer is that the most recent elections have been held in May, with the exception of the 2001 election when the foot and mouth epidemic occurred. There is always a difficulty with finding other times that do not clash with traditional holiday periods. However, my noble friend has posed an important challenge and we want to reflect on it. I also note that the annual canvass to update the electoral register takes place in October in Great Britain, so that may not be an appropriate time to place yet a further burden on electoral registration officers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, asked whether there could be an extension of the two months beyond the extension. The answer to that is no. My noble friend Lord Rennard asked about primary legislation in this context. I believe that it is appropriate to introduce the relevant measure by order as the latter would have to be passed by both Houses. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, asked what we anticipate might happen. I have asked myself that question. I am not sure that I have an answer but I think that one could anticipate receiving a lot of criticism if one was seen to be making provision for the Government to extend their life, not to shorten it. I have no doubt that if we did not have this measure something would happen that no one could have foreseen and we would wish that we had had it. In the case of the Scottish Parliament, the Presiding Officer has the power to vary the election date by one month either way and I think that in the case of the National Assembly for Wales, the Secretary of State has the power to vary the date by a short period either way-although I cannot remember exactly by how much. The measure that we are discussing has been informed by those practices.
It is clearly a drafting preference. We think that "any motion" or "a motion" would have the same effect. I shall certainly contemplate that matter further, but I think that it is a drafting preference rather than having any significant constitutional importance.
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, referred to resetting the clock. If there has been an election and a Government have been returned with a substantial majority and a mandate, they should have the opportunity to see that through for a full term. If the clock was not reset, the electorate might find it odd if, having returned a Government with a significant majority, they were then asked some 12 months later to vote again.
I have noted the points made about parliamentary privilege, which the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, raised, as did my noble friend Lord Cormack. I am sure that we will want to look at that issue in Committee but I certainly share the analysis of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that the provisions here would ensure that the courts would not interfere in what we believe is very much the space of Parliament.
The key issue is whether Parliaments should last for four or five years. As my noble friend Lord Rennard indicated, there is no absolutely right or wrong answer in that regard-it is a judgment. I indicated that the longer period allows the electorate to make its judgment-my noble friend Lord Marks commented on this-on the policies of a Government as they are seen to be working out in detail over time. I also believe that it allows a Government and Parliament longer to plan their activities. I cannot accept the argument that inevitably the situation has arisen under our present system whereby the fifth year has tended to be a bit of a lame-duck year and that that would necessarily follow if we had fixed-term Parliaments.
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The point was made by my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart and by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, and I think indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott-although I think he was arguing this point in the context of arguing against a five-year term-that the final year, even though it would not be under the same sort of handicap as perhaps 1976-77 or 2009-10, nevertheless would be under a handicap. Even under a fixed-term Parliament, there would be the looming shadow of the forthcoming election. The last year is not as effective a year as the earlier years of a Parliament. That is why I believe that it would be the same in the fourth year of a four-year fixed-term Parliament or the fifth year of a five-year fixed-term Parliament. A four-year fixed-term Parliament therefore would only really allow three years for the Government to put a substantial part of their programme through. I have no doubt whatsoever we will come back to this.
I also just want to say one point. I cannot wholly accept that under a five-year term accountability disappears in the fifth year. I think those of us who have fought elections and have been elected know only too well as the election comes up accountability is a very, very strong thing indeed. When one is about to go and face one's constituents accountability is very effective.
Another key issue, to which I am sure we will return in later stages of the Bill, is the mechanism. I absolutely endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said about there being a spectrum from total flexibility, which you might say we have got at the moment with an end point, a maximum turn with total flexibility and on to rigidity. I do not think that anyone was arguing in this debate for total rigidity. There is a consensus among supporters of the fixed-term Parliament over there being some degree of flexibility; if there is a political imperative or the Government completely fail there must be a mechanism for triggering an election. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that the Constitution Committee broadly endorsed the two mechanisms for triggering an election set out in the Bill but I have listened to the concerns that have been raised. A number of historic examples have been given but it is always difficult to say what would have happened in the past under a future system. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, acknowledged this. Edward Heath in 1974 obviously wanted a dissolution. The Opposition would have agreed and they would have got the two-thirds majority for an election. Likewise, the position in 1924 was also raised by, I think, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon in an intervention on my opening speech.
In January 1924 the Conservative Government resigned after a defeat on the Queen's Speech address but that did not trigger a general election. It actually triggered the formation of Ramsay MacDonald's Administration. The draft Cabinet manual which was published in
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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Am I right in saying that the election took place at the beginning of 1924 and Baldwin's Government failed to win on the first Queen's Speech and that is why we moved straight from Stanley Baldwin to Ramsay MacDonald? It would have been impractical to have gone straight to an election at that point.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Indeed, and that was the point that I think the noble and learned Lord raised in his speech. What happens in the first Queen's Speech after an election? I think unless people are prepared to have election after election after election or the potential for that there would be an opportunity for another Government to be formed. The draft Cabinet manual published for consultation in December last year indicated that too. There would either be a dissolution or another Administration would be formed. It is that dual possibility that the Bill seeks to address.
I listened carefully to those who argued that the wording as to what constitutes a vote of no confidence needs tightening up. In response to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the other place, the Government indicated a willingness to listen to suggestions on how that might be done. Those suggestions were not forthcoming during the Bill's progress through the other place. I have certainly thought hard about it and wonder whether trying to be too specific might cause more problems than if one leaves the wording as it is. I know that my noble friend Lord Norton has views on this matter which it will be interesting to hear and explore in Committee. However, one recognises an elephant when one sees it. If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is generally a duck. There is an issue here, but the more I have thought about it, the more I have found that trying to find a solution might cause more problems than leaving it, as it is at the moment, to the Speaker's discretion. If it is not to be the Speaker, I do not think that it would be appropriate, given what has been said, for a member of the Executive to sign. I do not believe that leaving it as it is would cause the difficulties that have been suggested.
"We conclude that, if the Bill is passed, it would not be possible to prevent a government using a vote of no confidence to bring about an early election. To do so would be seen by many as an abuse of the Act's provisions and would undermine the fixed-term principle".
I accept that that is possible, but I believe that it would be identified as an abuse. It would be a matter of politics. As far as I can see, the only way in which one can stop any kind of abuse is to have a rigid scheme, which no one apparently supports. That is why I have difficulty with those who have advocated that we keep things simple and that a simple majority of one in a
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Lord Wallace of Tankerness: That is not the position, because the Bill provides for a 14-day period following a vote of no confidence in which it could be seen whether another Government could be formed. That is not the same thing as going to the Palace the morning after a vote of confidence on a majority of one. If manipulation is possible under this Bill-unless the fixed terms are rigid, it is impossible to avoid-the opportunity for manipulation under a Dissolution on a simple majority of one is even greater. However, the important point is identified by the Constitution Committee: it would be seen as an abuse. That would be a matter for political debate and political comment and the electorate are the ultimate arbiters.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I said that that was what is envisaged because the proposition with which one has to deal is that the Government of the day with a majority procure a vote of no confidence in themselves-I have in mind the Heath example, where the Opposition do not agree. If that is the position, the Government of the day will also be able to stop anything happening in the following 14 days.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, it makes it much more of a process and an abuse of that process
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The noble Lord, Lord Bach, helpfully confirmed in his winding-up that the Labour Party is still committed-although not entirely with the support of everyone behind him-to the idea of fixed-term Parliaments, but he objected to the way it might be done. I have no doubt that the Labour Party gave this very careful thought and I am sure that in Committee we will see the benefit of that thought in the kind of the amendments that he tables to address this. It is identified by anyone who supports a fixed term that there has to be an element of flexibility in how you do it.
I conclude by acknowledging, as have my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Dobbs, and many others, including the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in his winding-up, the importance of scrutiny and the important work that we will do at the ensuing stages of this Bill. It is quite clear that there is a lot of meat for the House to get its teeth into. I look forward to engaging with that, and on that note I urge the House to support this Bill and give it a Second Reading.
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