|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I hope that Amendments 5 and 9A will be of some interest to the House. They would introduce a flexibility to hold a general election at any time in the fifth year of the Parliament. Amendment 5 deals with this particular Parliament and Amendment 9A deals with subsequent Parliaments. They still provide for Parliament to be fixed, but with flexibility between four and five years. They recognise that there are important objections to the term of Parliament being fixed for a full five years. The objections, which have been explored in our debates earlier in the day, are that accountability is diminished, that elections would take place less frequently, that the accountability of Members of Parliament to electors is therefore reduced and that the accountability of the Government to electors is reduced. Furthermore, if you insist on fixing the term of Parliament for a full five years, you are liable to find that you require an exhausted Government to totter on into a fifth year and probably expire at the end of it.
My amendments also recognise the widespread view within our political culture that, assuming that a Parliament is still viable, for the Prime Minister to call an election before five years are up is opportunistic, exploitative and an abuse. On the other hand, it is widely accepted that to call an election after four years have passed is acceptable. We saw that in the Parliaments of 1979-83, 1983-87, 1997-2001 and 2001-05. I do not think that anybody complained when either Mrs Thatcher or Tony Blair called an election after four years on those occasions. It was regarded as entirely within the reasonable understanding of our constitution.
These amendments would allow a continuation of the four-year norm-it has been typical that Parliaments have lasted for around four years in the post-war period- while respecting the principle of the five-year maximum which was legislated for in 1911. When Mr Asquith proposed that legislation in 1911, he
15 Mar 2011 : Column 219
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I shall be extremely brief but I told myself that if anybody else brought Mr Asquith into the debate yet again I would take advantage of his reappearance to make a single point. In the Earl of Oxford and Asquith's memoirs, he describes the debate within the Liberal Cabinet in the period leading up to the First World War in relation to the Marconi scandal in which the then Attorney-General was somewhat embarrassed by his behaviour. I think that it was on the issue of shares. I am astonished that the Prime Minister put this into his memoirs, but the outcome of the Cabinet discussion was that they were at no real parliamentary risk because it was absolutely clear that the Conservatives would be too stupid to take advantage of it. There was one dissenting voice, which was Winston, who had of course once been a Tory.
The Opposition say, again and again, that the purpose of the Bill is to provide glue in the coalition relationship. In responding to that, remembering what had happened in Asquith's Cabinet, I asked myself, "Is it really because they want to be helpful to the coalition that they go on repeating this?". I recall in the process C S Lewis's happy remark that if you hear about someone going around doing good to others, you can always tell the others by their hunted look. It occurred to me that there was some degree of overlap between the argument that we need a Parliament shorter than a five-year one and the Opposition's view, set out during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, that it would be helpful if the country had the opportunity of expressing its opinion at the earliest possible opportunity, when it so happened that there might have been some degree of parliamentary advantage to the Opposition in that happening. I hope, diffidently, that as the Bill progresses we will not have suggestions made in either direction that we are all engaged in this for short-term parliamentary advantage or that we are all concentrating totally on the good of the nation and the constitution.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that was an interesting and helpful intervention. Anyone who has read David Laws's book on the negotiations between the coalition parties will find that the coalition parties did not meet the test that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has set. On page 98 of that highly readable tome, Andrew Stunell pointed out to the negotiating team that,
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: I was not making any comment on the course of events. I was simply saying that interventions periodically from the Opposition Benches on this subject might have had a degree of self-interest.
There are two issues here. We are changing our system and we believe that the change from four to five years will be damaging to our constitutional arrangements. Extending the elections by, in practice, around one year will distance people from the politicians. The debate before the dinner break on the issue of the devolved Administrations was very interesting because it highlighted the principle of unintended consequences of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It is likely that, as a result of this legislation, the term of office in Scotland and Wales, and possibly Northern Ireland, will be extended to five years. That must be the clear implication of what the noble Lord said. I am glad to see that the noble Lord is in his place. He argued that we should not have a referendum on this Bill because, although under the Bill the term of the Parliament will be fixed at five years, that will not be outwith the limit in the current legislation. However, in relation to the devolved Administrations, moving to five years will go outwith the current primary legislation. I hope that there will be a referendum on that proposal if it comes before Parliament.
My noble friend has raised the very interesting and ingenious proposition that four years should be the norm while respecting the principle of a five-year limit. He deserves a comprehensive response from the Minister.
Lord Pannick: Before the Minister responds, I should like to add my response to these amendments and, indeed, to so many of the thoughtful amendments to Clause 1 that have been tabled. They tinker with a fundamentally misconceived concept of a fixed-term Parliament, as was explained by so many of your Lordships at Second Reading. As we have already debated this afternoon, Clause 1 is driven by the short-term political considerations of the coalition and will reduce the effective power of the electorate to have their say about those who govern them. I am coming to the view that the correct approach is for this House to agree that this Parliament should last for five years-that will deal perfectly adequately with the short-term political needs of this Government-but refuse to accept that we should legislate for any future Parliament. After this Parliament, the normal, traditional procedures, which have worked very well, should continue. I very much hope that on Report we can decide that that should be the case.
Lord Martin of Springburn: My Lords, I have a worry about the idea of a five-year Parliament. My experience of the other place was that when there was a four-year Parliament, although there were arguments between Back-Benchers and their own government leaders-the Executive-and between parties, at least the electorate had an opportunity to sort the matter out. They could decide who would be the next Government. Now we are proposing to have five years.
If my memory serves me correctly, during the time that I was in the House of Commons, there were two occasions when the Parliament went the full five years. The last Parliament went five years, and there are no two ways about it-in that last year, the electorate were not getting value for money, if that is the right way to put it. There was very little going through the House. Some may say that that was the fault of the Government for not finding legislation to put through the House, but it is a problem with the whole House. The electorate are entitled to better.
It is not the first time during my political lifetime that I have heard criticism of the great trade union barons, although there are none any more. The railway industry, which was traditionally the main industry in my area, employed 12,000 people in my constituency. You can imagine the numbers working for the railway industry throughout the country. The same went for the steel-working and engineering unions. Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am a card-carrying member of my engineering trade union. Maybe I am digressing, but this is a valid point: if any trade union leader had said, "By the way, I am going to have an extra year of office and I'm not going back to the membership about it", there would be criticism on the Floor of this House and in the other place.
On the five-year term, we know that an arrangement has been made by the Conservatives and Liberals. I do not want to criticise that, but where arrangements are made there can be fall-outs. What kind of situation will we have if members of the coalition start falling out with one another? There are better scholars of history than me, but I got an opportunity to read some of our great country's naval history. It turns out that Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian were pals when they got on board but, after that long voyage, they fell out with one another. That could happen with the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives-they, too, could start to fall out with one another.
I have another point to make concerning the practicalities of a five-year Parliament. I noticed that on a Thursday in the House of Commons-noble Lords can check the records; they have no need to take my word for it-there were debates but no votes. The party managers arranged it that way. It was clear that after Prime Minister's Questions Members of Parliament went back to their constituencies, where they were working hard. Perhaps they were a bit worried about the people in their constituencies who were attacking them. I remember Tam Dalyell, who was an excellent mentor. He would say to me, "Michael, you are elected to Westminster. You are elected by your constituents to be in Westminster and you shouldn't be seen in the constituency while Parliament is sitting. You should be in Parliament. You are the only person in your constituency who can get to those
15 Mar 2011 : Column 222
I have seen MPs promoted to ministerial posts. They have been bubbly and full of enthusiasm, and they have taken to the Dispatch Box like a duck to water. Then the Prime Minister of the day would have a reshuffle, and the Minister who was so pleased to take a portfolio from the Prime Minister was not too pleased when he lost it. He would call the Prime Minister of the day every name under the sun. When I heard that, I would say, "He wasn't too bad a man two years ago. You liked him then. I heard you say so, but you don't like him now". Therefore, the handing out of gifts went only one way so far as some Ministers were concerned-they felt that they should be given the portfolio but not have it taken away. That brought about what was known as the ex-Ministers club, and with a five-year Parliament it is going to have a lot of members. The reality is that the Prime Minister of the day has to get fresh blood in because, if he does not, there will be a gnashing of teeth in the ranks. Therefore, others have to be pushed out and return to the Back Benches.
I may have spoken for too long, as I know that we have other amendments to consider. Regarding the five-year Parliament, I can only say to my noble friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches that it is happy days for them now. Some of their colleagues have ministerial jobs and they are all as happy as Larry. However, I go back to Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh: there will be fall-outs, and that five years may end up being a millstone round their necks.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, but I am motivated to follow the words of the noble Lord, Lord Martin. There is a great deal in what he has said. When you look at Parliaments that have lasted for five years, they tend to suggest that it is very difficult for a party to generate a coherent programme of public policy that is sustainable over a full five-year period. By the time you come to the fifth Session, the Government tend to have moved from being a Government to being an Administration. They tend to be very reactive; they are deskbound; they are not generating policy; and they are certainly not pursuing the programme that they placed before the electors at the general election. There will be certain dangers if a Parliament is dragged out artificially for a particular fixed term. Electors should be given the opportunity to have a say before then if the Government have clearly run out of steam. Therefore, there is merit in what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is proposing, which is to inject an element of flexibility to take care of that very point.
Lord Tyler: We should be absolutely clear what precisely the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, would do. They would put back into the hands of the Prime Minister of the day, the leader of one of the political parties, the opportunity to pick a good moment to alter the general election date for party advantage. That is the
15 Mar 2011 : Column 223
Lord Martin of Springburn: Can I make the point that going beyond four years can be a double-edged sword for a Prime Minister? Margaret Thatcher was very shrewd in how she went after a strict four years, as was Tony Blair. We have seen what happened with five years, so it does not always work in a Prime Minister's favour.
Lord Cormack: I make one brief point following the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Martin. Surely in a coalition Government the Prime Minister could not do what his partner, the Deputy Prime Minister, did not wish him to do. So why are we here?
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: I want to repeat a point I made on Second Reading, which does not seem to have been raised so far today. I do not bring any preconceived ideological support for fixed-term Parliaments. The Bill is a positive step to address the lack of public confidence in the political system. One of the points I made on Second Reading, which is the most powerful reason to support the Bill, is that it would ensure that the Government and the Opposition had to face the electorate on a predetermined date, whatever the political conditions are at that time. That is the most compelling thing about fixed-term Parliaments. As to the length of the term and whether it should be four or five years, I was struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. He made the point about Governments being distracted by preparing for elections and said that if there were to be a fixed-term Parliament, in his view as a former Cabinet Secretary, it should be five years.
Lord Grocott: We need to address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, which as ever was entirely valid, about the extent to which we all tend to cover our party advantage with the cloak of great constitutional principle. That is obviously a criticism that we need to take seriously. The way in which to leaven that a little is to ask ourselves, whichever side of the argument we are on, whether we would take the same position of "principle" if we were on the other side of the House. I readily ask that question of myself, having spent a fair chunk of my parliamentary life in government-not as a Minister but in supporting the Government-and a fair chunk in opposition. If I find, as we all do from time to time, that I am in danger of adopting different positions in government and in opposition-which I must say I have seen to be spectacularly the case with one or two who are now in government-we ought to ask whether it was a great constitutional principle or party advantage. I try to test that myself and I have no doubt that I frequently fail, as I freely admit that I do not readily support a constitutional principle that I know would damage the Labour Party. That is where I am.
However, I ask the Government whether, if there were a Labour majority of one after the next general election, which they want to be in 2015, would they with the same passionate, principled enthusiasm say
15 Mar 2011 : Column 224
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, again this amendment has stimulated an interesting debate, some of which goes into the general principles of fixed-terms Parliaments and some of which foreshadows the later debate we will have on the figure of four or five years. The amendment would omit the date of 7 May 2015 and provide instead that the next parliamentary general election should be held within a range of four to five years after the previous general election. In other words, we would be looking at an election held no earlier than 6 May 2014 and no later than 6 May 2015.
As my noble friend Lord Tyler very succinctly put it, that drives a coach and horses through the whole concept of a fixed-term Parliament because it would put back into the hands of the Prime Minister the option of choosing the date of the election which those of us who have supported the concept of fixed-term Parliaments want to move away from. I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that it would quite easily be resolved because the Prime Minister could do so only if he had the agreement of the Deputy Prime Minister. It would be in the very circumstances where the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister fell out that the chances would be that the Prime Minister would want that option-the circumstances perhaps more graphically, from a literary perspective, expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. As my noble friend Lady Stowell said, the important point about fixed-term Parliaments is that the Government of the day have to face the electorate on a predetermined date regardless of the prevailing political circumstances.
Asquith was quoted. I have read this quote several times, and I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, did quote him because it gave us the benefit of the intervention by my noble friend Lord Brooke. We can have a quite legitimate debate about what Mr Asquith was saying on 21 February 1911. He said that reducing the Parliament from seven years, as it previously was, to five years would,
He did not say that the term would be four years, but that legislative working term would be four years. That reflects the comments referred to by my noble friend Lady Stowell that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, at Second Reading. I readily concede that he has misgivings about the idea of fixed-term Parliaments, but he said that if we have them, he prefers five years rather than four years because:
"Even with a term of five years, that shadow extends over the last year of the term and tends to reduce to no more than four years the period during which government policy-making and parliamentary debate can effectively be pursued without too much looking over the shoulder at electoral considerations".-[Official Report, 1/3/11; col. 971.].
His concern is that if we have a four-year fixed term, it would kick in at the end of three years. Obviously, if we are going to have even more prelegislative scrutiny in the first year, that shrinks the time available to Governments to deliver their programme.
My noble friend Lord Norton, the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and others have indicated that our recent experience of Governments who have gone for a fifth year has not necessarily always been happy. In many ways, that almost makes the point. The only reason those Governments limped on during the fifth year was that it was not propitious or opportunistic for the Prime Minister of the day to call an election after four years because he thought he was going to lose. If you have a five-year fixed term, clearly Governments can plan for those five years. It may well be that they can do more prelegislative scrutiny in the first year. There will inevitably be an election looming at the end of the fifth year, but you are more likely to get proper planning for five years and a Government not having to go for the fifth year because they do not think it opportune to go at the end of four years.
Lord Martin of Springburn:I am at a loss to understand why the Government do not go for four years. Another feature about a fifth year is that everyone will be in the doldrums. Members of Parliament will not stay in the Chamber. They will be campaigning in their constituencies. That will be a problem in the fifth year. I know that some noble Lords are muttering and I do not want to go on for too long because I was accused on the radio of filibustering not so long ago, which was not true. My point is that, if there is legislation in the fourth year, Members of Parliament will stay because of their duty to vote, but if there is nothing doing in that final year, they will be campaigning in their constituencies.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, with all due respect, the noble Lord makes the mistake of trying to impose on a new situation of a five-year fixed-term Parliament the problems that have arisen under the existing system. Clearly, if a Government are elected for five years, and they know that it is a fixed term and that they will not have to make a calculation at the end of three and a half years or four years on whether they should go to the country, they can plan their legislation properly for the five years. Parliament's committees can plan their programme of work for five years in terms of bringing the Government to account. It is wrong to take the experience of an existing system, which I would argue is one of the problems of the existing system. A Government might not think that they can cut and run after four years and will limp on into the fifth year. Where there is a fixed term for five years, the Government could plan for five years, subject only to overriding circumstances, which is why we have the escape-hatch mechanisms as set out in Clause 2.
I also take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, which I would link to my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. He says that this Parliament should see its five years through and that it was elected for five years. As perhaps was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, we would not act like some trade
15 Mar 2011 : Column 226
We are also proposing that future Parliaments should be for five years. Clearly, no Parliament can bind a successor, which is a position that we recognise. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I believe in fixed-term Parliaments. Who would predict the result of the next election this far out? There is no guarantee that the Government will involve my party or the Conservative Party. It may well be a Government of the Labour Party. I am prepared to say that, yes, I believe in the fixed-term Parliament. If it was a Government of the Labour Party that was to last five years, that would be the right thing to do. Having believed in the concept of fixed-term Parliaments, I am prepared to accept that that could be a consequence. I hope that the noble Lord will take that in the good faith in which it is offered.
I cannot accept that this is a fix for this coalition Government, because we will not necessarily be the Government after 2015. Clearly, we will want to fight our case as best we can. The Conservative Party will undoubtedly want to get as many seats as it can. We as Liberal Democrats will want to get as many seats as we can. Who knows what the outcome will be? At this stage, who knows what electoral system the election might be fought on? It would be impossible to predict. The principle of supporting the fixed-term Parliament means that what is sauce for the goose must also be sauce for the gander and I readily accept that.
I believe that to adopt the amendment as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, would completely undermine the whole principle of having a fixed-term Parliament. It would reintroduce the opportunity for the Government of the day in that final year to choose the most opportune moment to go to the country. My noble friend Lord Lawson in his book, The View from No.11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical,said about the then Prime Minister, now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher:
Clearly, the judgments of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, in 1983 and 1987 were absolutely right as far as the Conservative Party interest was concerned, but it underlines the fact that it was a question of going when it was politically opportune to do so. That is what this amendment takes away from the Prime Minister of the day and that is why I urge the noble Lord to withdraw it.
Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, the logic of my noble friend's argument is that a Parliament might go for a full five years and a Government will have a programme for at least a full four years. Does he think the empirical evidence is there to support that?
Lord Norton of Louth: A Government who come in will have a programme for four years with the fifth year spent preparing for the election. I am asking the Minister whether he thinks there is the empirical evidence to support that Governments come in and have a full programme to cover four sessions.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: If this Bill becomes law and there is a five-year Parliament, the Government of the day can expect to be there for five years and therefore can plan their programme over a five-year period. They need not necessarily frontload the parliamentary programme. It may allow more opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny, which is regularly being encouraged. That is a difficult issue in the first year of a Parliament when Governments clearly want to move on and do some of the things they were elected on. But if they know that there is a five-year fixed-term Parliament, there is a better opportunity to programme it.
If it was a four-year Parliament, the final-year problem described by the noble Lord, Lord Martin, would kick in in the fourth year, with people going back to their constituencies because they knew an election was looming. Therefore, the effective period of a Government's programme would be much reduced. If you have a five-year period it will be possible for a Government to plan that programme over five years. We are talking about annual Sessions beginning in May. At the moment the final Session tends to start in late November and has to wind up in late March. I do not think any of us who saw the wash-up last March found it a particularly edifying experience. One would hope that if a Government knew that the final Session was starting in May and going through to a solution the following late March, that would allow for a much better programme in the final year and avoid the consequences of wash-up.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, we have indicated that we will move towards a May Queen's Speech. There is a legislative programme and I do not think the number of Bills in this first Session matches the numbers in some of the first Sessions of the previous Administration. This Bill is not yet on the statute book but if it is passed, I believe that we will see a much more orderly planned programme than I have seen since I came into this House, certainly in the final Session.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, this has been a better debate than it looked like being. We were not exactly playing to a packed House at the beginning but more and more noble Lords have stood up and made short speeches that have been to the point and very interesting. I am particularly grateful to the noble
15 Mar 2011 : Column 228
My observation is a little bit like his: I simply do not see it as being the reality that politicians plan systematically. They talk endlessly about strategies, but I have yet to see a politician who is capable of developing and sustaining a strategy over a year, let alone four years. It is wholly unlikely that the culture and work and behaviour patterns of either House of Parliament would be so dramatically changed as a consequence of knowing that the span of this Parliament was to be fixed for five years. Politicians improvise, and it is greatly to their credit that they do so-they need to. It is part of their responsibility to be responsive to public opinion and the shifts and tides of opinion and events; they are not good politicians if they are not. That is not to disparage or to criticise them. I would have a horror of a Government who were so tunnel-visioned and so rigid that they set themselves a five-year plan at the outset of a Parliament and determined to stick to it. It does not seem to correspond with political human nature, and it is an entirely spurious justification for introducing fixed-term Parliaments.
One has only to look at the ad-hocery that we have seen in this first year of the coalition Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested. We have seen this Government attempt to get away with establishing a requirement for a 55 per cent vote to have an early general election. It was like a leak except that it was brazenly published in the interesting work of autobiography, memoir, history, political science or whatever it is by Mr David Laws, who candidly acknowledged-my noble friend Lord Hunt quoted from this interesting volume-the unembarrassed, shameless and self-interested calculation on the part of Mr Stunell for Liberal Democrats and Mr Osborne for the Conservatives. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, supported by my noble friend Lord Grocott, reminded us that we have a responsibility when we address questions of constitutional reform not to dress up our views and even our calculations of party political interest in high-flown constitutional sentiment-I suppose the term is not to be hypocritical. My noble friend is quite right that we are all susceptible to that temptation. It may well be that, from his vantage point there in the corner, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, is better able to spot when that aberration, that corruption, is occurring than many of us who are more impulsive participants. He was perfectly right. I suspect that I am simply too naive to make an effective calculation of party political interest. In a rather old-fashioned way, I think that it is our job to try to get all this right.
I dispute the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that my amendment would drive a
15 Mar 2011 : Column 229
What I am proposing lies somewhere between the two extremes. In reality, when you are legislating on most matters, you need to provide for a sensible degree of flexibility so that in practice people can carry things forward in a realistic way. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, said that it would undermine one of the great benefits of the Bill as she sees it; the requirement of the Prime Minister and the Government to face the electors on a pre-determined date. The proposal does compromise on that, but it still means that there will be a pre-determined date in the fifth year of the Parliament. I think public opinion would find that quite acceptable.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, absolutely rightly said that in this Committee we are all being driven to tinker with a fundamentally misconceived policy. I agree with him; I do not support fixed-term Parliaments. But we are, as the previous Prime Minister Mr Blair used to say, where we are. The Bill has received its Second Reading. It is not for us to seek to overturn the principle of the Bill that there should be fixed-term Parliaments. It is for us to limit the damage that this legislation may cause. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggested that perhaps the least bad way forward would be to legislate for this Parliament alone and to drop the idea of having fixed-term Parliaments after the expiry of this Parliament. I suggest that it would
15 Mar 2011 : Column 230
The debate on this amendment is really an amuse bouche before the important debate on Amendment 11 which we will have next week. That will be the debate on whether we should amend the Bill to provide for a fixed-term Parliament of four years in clear-cut fashion and without the compromise and flexibility that I have suggested. That is the amendment in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, my noble friend Lord Bach and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. That will be a major debate.
We have had a useful exploratory debate on the issue of four and five years. The House ought always to listen with special care to the noble Lord, Lord Martin of Springburn. As a former Speaker of the House of Commons, he understands that House in a way that few others do. The noble Lord has given us some reasons why Parliament should favour a four-year fixed term rather than a five-year fixed term and we should meditate on what he said. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw this amendment.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|