The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): My Lords, our cancer strategy sets out a range of actions to improve outcomes for all cancer patients. It shows how we intend to tackle preventable cancer incidence, improve the quality and efficiency of cancer services and deliver improved outcomes. We are providing £450 million to achieve earlier diagnosis of cancer, and we are working with a number of rarer cancer charities to discuss current barriers to early diagnosis of rarer cancers and possible solutions.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that each year more than 8,000 people in the United Kingdom learn that they have kidney cancer? That is approximately 22 people a day. Is he aware, too, that some of the treatment options contained in the UK guidelines for the systemic treatment of renal cell carcinoma have not been approved by NICE? Finally, will the Minister meet the James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer and leading clinicians to explore methods and systems to improve the diagnosis of kidney cancer at the early stage?
Earl Howe: My Lords, I pay tribute, first of all, to the James Whale Fund for Kidney Cancer, which is an organisation that I know quite well, as the noble Lord is aware. It is doing tremendous work, not least in the field of specialist cancer nursing but also as regards its care line, on which I congratulate it. The noble Lord asked whether I would agree to meet the fund. For my own part I would be very happy to do so, but it may be more appropriate for my colleague in the department, who deals with cancer services, to do so as well. We recognise that more needs to be done to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of rarer cancers such as kidney cancer. Our strategy for cancer sets out our commitment to work with a number of cancer-focused charities. Officials have already met such charities and more meetings are planned over the summer.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, raised the question of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence approval of chemotherapeutic drugs. After a nephrectomy, not
10 May 2011 : Column 768
Earl Howe: I am grateful to my noble friend. He is absolutely right; these are very difficult decisions to make. NICE issues final guidance on the use of a drug only after very careful consideration of the evidence and wide consultation with stakeholders. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, and, I am sure, my noble friend will be aware that one particular drug has been refused or not recommended by NICE. However, we have established the cancer drugs fund, which will enable individual clinicians on a patient-by-patient basis to apply to access drugs even though they have not been recommended by NICE.
Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, will the Minister look at the problem of neuroblastoma, which is an aggressive type of child cancer? I have to declare an interest as I had a small cousin who had his kidney removed at five with a tumour. He had to go to America for treatment. Will the Minister ensure that the UK, which does not have a good survival rate for these children, looks with America at the research needed for them? There are only about 100 a year in the UK who have neuroblastoma.
Earl Howe: The noble Baroness raises an important issue, because these conditions are devastating even though they affect only a comparatively small number. There is a good deal of research going on into cancer, some of it funded by my department. I do not have details of whether that condition is the focus of any such programme but I will take away her concern and write to her if I have further information.
Baroness Thornton: My Lords, today the Cancer Campaigning Group, which represents dozens of cancer organisations including Kidney Cancer UK, has launched a survey of GPs in which 71 per cent agree or strongly agree that they will require specialist advice effectively to commission cancer services. Given that the cancer networks' funding is not guaranteed beyond 2011-12, how will that commissioning support be provided? On an individual basis, how will support be provided to GPs when they have to tell a kidney cancer patient that they will not be able to afford to offer Afinitor? That is the drug the Minister referred to, which is not approved by NICE and which costs £200,000 per course of treatment.
Earl Howe: My Lords, there are drugs which NICE has recommended for kidney cancer, so Afinitor is not the only drug on the menu. GPs have a crucial role to
10 May 2011 : Column 769
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, has my noble friend made any assessment of the difficulties of treating cancer patients, when the trouble is with the kidneys, because of lack of spare parts?
Earl Howe: I think I shall need to clarify with my noble friend what she means by spare parts in this context. I am aware that if we look at treatment options for kidney cancer, neither chemotherapy nor radiotherapy is generally appropriate. Usually, surgery is the preferred course of treatment. If my noble friend will allow, I will speak to her afterwards and investigate as appropriate.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, Her Majesty's Government will invest more than £2.2 billion in the arts over the next four years via Arts Council England. This money will support artists and organisations working at every level, from small community arts groups to our major national institutions.
The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. However, in view of the fact that we already have unacceptable levels of funding to the arts locally-100 per cent cuts have been made by some local authorities-and that we are just at the beginning of this, does the Minister agree that what is urgently required is the introduction of a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide proper funding of the arts and cultural services, since these are such a necessary part of the life of local communities?
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I understand fully the thrust behind the question of the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, but we feel that imposing a statutory duty would also place added burdens upon local government at a time when deregulation is a priority. We want to continue to give the funding responsibility to local communities and local authorities so that they can
10 May 2011 : Column 770
Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does the Minister agree that Arts Council England, to which she referred, has made a pretty good effort through the creation of its new national portfolio to ensure that there is coverage across England of arts organisations at all scales, as she mentioned? I should, perhaps, register an interest as the author of a report, three years ago, on its last effort, which was, perhaps, slightly less successful. Does she not agree, however, that the random nature of the way in which funding has been withdrawn by local authorities makes the Arts Council's job a great deal more difficult and means that the available funds are used less well? It would be in the interests of the Government, as well as those of arts communities, for local authorities to be more consistent in the way they apply their funding to the arts and culture.
Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. The arm's-length principle means that individual arts funding decisions are taken at arm's length from government. To go back to the main part of her question, on 30 March Arts Council England announced its new national portfolio organisations. These are bodies which will receive regular funding over the next three years. As for the geographical breakdown, the spending will remain largely the same, so it will cover all areas.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, we hear a lot about National Lottery funds and the fact that the lottery gives money to the arts. Will the Minister say how that compares to the amount given by DCMS to the arts?
Baroness Rawlings: I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, for that. While grant in aid, just one part of the Arts Council overall income, is being reduced, we are reforming the lottery so that more money will go to the arts. An additional £80 million will go to the arts from the National Lottery each year from 2013.
Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I declare an interest as the patron of the wonderful Docklands Sinfonia. In terms of the Cultural Olympiad planned for 2012, will we be picking up local arts activities within schools in the East End and also all the musical possibilities, rather than just going for stilt walkers and things like that-not that I have anything against stilt walkers?
Baroness Rawlings: The noble Lord brings up a very good point regarding the Cultural Olympiad, with which we in the department are all deeply involved. He is absolutely right and that is what we hope to continue to do.
Lord Scott of Foscote: My Lords, is it right that the Department for Communities and Local Government is preparing guidelines to assist local authorities in
10 May 2011 : Column 771
Baroness Rawlings: To return to the actual funding, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport feels strongly that individual arts funding decisions must be taken at arm's length through Arts Council England.
Lord Roberts of Llandudno: My Lords, there is immense talent throughout the United Kingdom. What is being done to encourage the exchange of art collections between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England? It is not just Arts Council England that is involved in this.
Lord Stevenson of Balmacara: Does the Minister agree that in practice the situation facing local arts organisations is made much worse by the fact that, in addition to the 29.6 per cent cut in Arts Council funding over the next four years and the reductions in local authority funding, about which we have just heard, the RDAs, which significantly supported our creative industries and the arts right across the country, have been abolished? What progress are the Government making in replacing those lost funds before too much damage is done?
Baroness Rawlings: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has negotiated a substantial settlement for the arts, and it is not true that they are facing major cuts. As your Lordships know, though, we need to contribute, like others, to reducing the deficit. In the longer term, our areas that rely on several different sources of funding will benefit, like elsewhere, from a strong economy and stable public finances. It is simply not an option to protect arts funding while cutting public spending in other areas, but in time much more money will be coming from the lottery, as the noble Lord knows.
Lord Grade of Yarmouth: My Lords, however regrettable and inevitable the cuts in funding for the vital arts in this country, unlike other sectors that are susceptible to cuts, the arts sector has the opportunity to find a new source of funding from charitable giving, which is the foundation of the thriving arts in the United States where there is no public subsidy whatever. It is time that we worked harder at finding incentives for charitable giving. Does the Minister agree?
Baroness Rawlings: I thank my noble friend Lord Grade for that question, which he knows is very near to my heart. We have announced a package of measures to boost charitable giving, including an £80 million matched funding pot. In the Budget of 23 March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a significant
10 May 2011 : Column 772
To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to ensure that children do not lose the chance of being adopted as a result of the closure of adoption agencies following the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Hill of Oareford): My Lords, the Government are committed to adoption where this is in a child's best interests. We have been monitoring the effect of the introduction of the regulations, and have made it clear to local authorities that they should work with the voluntary sector to maximise the number of successful adoptions. My honourable friend Mr Loughton is leading a drive to speed up adoption and remove potential barriers-for example, for children from minority ethnic backgrounds.
Lord Waddington: I thank my noble friend for his reply, but in light of the Times report of 2 May that five of the remaining Catholic adoption agencies have gone out of business rather than abandon their Christian beliefs, with the likelihood that this will make it harder for some of the most vulnerable children to be found a home, should not common sense and tolerance come before political correctness? With gay couples able to go to any number of agencies specialising in gay adoption, should not the law allow the Catholic agencies the same freedom of conscience as was allowed to conscientious objectors during the war?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I understand the point made by my noble friend and know the strength of feeling that he brings to bear on this. The department has approached adoption from the point of view of what is in the best interests of children by trying to have as a wide a pool as possible of potential adopters. No one on this side of the House is keen to do things that are driven by political correctness. That is one of the reasons why we are looking, for example, at the adoption of minority ethnic children. I understand the points that my noble friend makes, but at the moment we have no plans to respond directly to them.
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, in welcoming the Munro report today, which talks about some aspects of social work but has implications for the whole field, does the Minister agree with me that the complexity of the task that Mr Loughton is taking on involves improving social work practice and the practice of panels, reviewing the court processes, and
10 May 2011 : Column 773
Lord Hill of Oareford: I very much agree with the point about the complexity of the issue and the need to look at all the issues in the round. The points that have been raised to do with court processes, finding suitable adopters, speeding up the process and tackling obstacles are all extremely important. As the noble Baroness will know, in responding to Munro my honourable friend Mr Loughton will take advice from an expert group on precisely these issues. He will come back later in the year to pull the various strands together and, I hope, come up with solutions. The whole House, irrespective of from where we are coming on some of these issues, will share the view that we need to find more good adoptions for the children who need them most.
Baroness Benjamin: My Lords, voluntary adoption agencies such as Barnardo's-I declare an interest as a vice president-welcome the Government's focus on adoption. However, for adoptive places to succeed there needs to be long-term commitment. Are there any plans to ensure that specialist therapeutic services and multi-agency support for adoptive families are made more widely available so that adoptive placements succeed, especially for older children who come from a traumatised or abused background?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I agree with my noble friend about the importance of support services and specialist support services. Part of a good solution to the problems of adoption is finding a bigger supply of adopters, speeding up the process and supporting those families who have adopted children. On her specific point about what support might be available, I will follow that up with my honourable friend Mr Loughton and respond to her in more detail.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Does the Minister recognise that the position taken by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, may well be the position taken by the majority of people in this country? Should we not be listening to people?
Lord Hill of Oareford: My Lords, as I said, I understand the point of view expressed by my noble friend Lord Waddington and always listen to him most carefully, as I do to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. However, there is not much that I can add to my previous reply to my noble friend Lord Waddington.
The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, a significant number of faith-based children's agencies are still providing adoption services in compliance with the Equality Act, while others are now restricted in that area to providing services after adoption. Does the Minister agree that, taken together, all these faith-based children's agencies provide a key service to vulnerable children-one that could be further extended?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I very much agree with that. As we have said in previous debates and exchanges about adoption, the role of the voluntary adoption agencies is extremely important in this. One of the issues that my honourable friend Mr Loughton is looking at is encouraging the take-up of the services provided by the voluntary adoption agencies. Some local authorities seem more resistant than others to using those services. One would want to tackle that because the range of different performances from one local authority area to another is very wide. It would be good to narrow it. The role of voluntary adoption agencies in that is an important part of coming up with a solution.
Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the application of the Equality Act, far from resulting in children losing the chance of being adopted, will open up new opportunities for a much more diverse group of prospective parents to offer a stable and loving home to children in care?
Lord Hill of Oareford: I reiterate my point that all sides of the House would agree that having a wide number of potential adopters-those with strong religious beliefs and those without-who can help children and provide loving and stable homes for them is what we would all seek to encourage.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, we are deeply concerned about reports of the severe charges brought against a large number of doctors and nurses by a Bahraini military tribunal. It is essential that medical personnel can treat their patients free from political interference. Our ambassador raised the case with the Bahraini Minister of Justice on 4 May.
Lord Ribeiro: I thank my noble friend for his considered response. He has a list of 17 doctors who are currently detained, the majority of whom are surgeons. The accounts of torture and beatings reported in the Independent today confirm that the Government of Bahrain are failing in their duty of care to protect doctors and medical staff. The International Code of Medical Ethics, adopted in 1949 and amended in 2006, states:
Lord Howell of Guildford: The feelings of the Government are largely in line with those of my noble friend. The arrest of doctors and nurses seeking to perform their duties is clearly an appalling situation. I have to tell my noble friend that not all aspects of this case are clear at the moment, but we take the view that it is very important that the accused have proper access to legal counsel and be tried by impartial and independent courts. We take a strong view on that matter. Other aspects have been raised, and will continue to be raised, by our ambassador, but not all aspects of this case are clear at the moment.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that these arrests of doctors, nurses, ambulance workers and paramedical personnel are part of a massive sectarian purge of intellectuals throughout Bahrain that includes university teachers, journalists, the editor of a newspaper and two MPs? Should not the Government call in the Bahraini ambassador and inform him that, unless these detainees are released and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is permitted to carry out an impartial investigation, we will impose a travel ban on leading members of the regime and ask the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to consider charges against the leaders of the regime for crimes against humanity?
Lord Howell of Guildford: At this present stage, we do not consider travel bans or other charges and moves of that kind to be a proper way forward. We are in constant contact, not merely with the ambassador here but, through my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, with the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and other Ministers, including the Minister of Justice. We continue to believe that the aim is to have a national dialogue to meet the problems of what my noble friend rightly calls an appalling situation of inter-regional strife between the Shia majority and the Sunni minority that represents the ruling group. This is an intense tension. Its effects are in danger of spreading to other parts of the Middle East, with all kinds of results that we do not want. Therefore, for the moment, we stick to the view that we must urge these countries, the ruling family and the leaders on both sides-the opposition and the ruling group-to move towards a national dialogue. That is what they say they want and that is what we are urging them to do as hard as we can at the moment.
Lord Owen: Will the Government ensure that, besides making very strong bilateral representations, we use our position in all the international bodies available, including the Security Council, the WHO and all the humanitarian bodies, to raise this issue at the very highest level? There is now very clear evidence of targeted action against individuals who are caring for people who come into hospital as a result of demonstrations. The Bahrain Government, who have had good relations with this country over many years, must now listen to those representations.
Lord Howell of Guildford: The representations we are making are strong. I have to repeat what I said to my noble friends: not all aspects of this issue and this whole case are entirely clear at the moment. Any
10 May 2011 : Column 776
Lord Triesman: My Lords, I am sure that the statement made by the Minister about the intervention in respect of the medical staff will be welcomed by the House. Can he tell us of other instances of intervention in Bahrain and whether the Government believe that they have been successful in any of them?
Lord Howell of Guildford: I do not totally follow the generality of the question. If the noble Lord means to ask whether we have constant contact with Bahrain and whether we are putting considerable pressure on those with whom we have had close contact-because Bahrain remains a close ally and good friend of the United Kingdom, and vice versa-those interventions are going on all the time. Have they had effects? They have not had the effects we want by any means so far. On the contrary, we have seen a deterioration in the situation, which is very disappointing. The issue now is how we handle it: whether we put even bigger barriers between ourselves and the Bahraini authorities, or whether we use our former links to work very hard with them to change their ways and develop a dialogue-which earlier they said they wanted, in contrast to other countries where there has been a tendency towards civil war, mass killings and other violent and hard-line activities.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, before we consider the Report of the Bill, I should like to put a couple of points to the Minister. We are about to embark on a major constitutional reform at Report, but since we considered the Bill in Committee, a matter of considerable constitutional significance has taken place. That is to say, there was a referendum on the alternative vote system which, I am delighted to say, was overwhelmingly defeated by the British public-including, I might say, a 72 per cent no vote in Telford and a Labour-control gain from the Conservatives in Telford.
It is normal, if significant national events occur after Committee or between any stages of the Bill, that there be some reaction and, perhaps, amendments to the Bill. I see the Minister looking a little startled and, I am sure, thinking, "What is the significance of the referendum to this Bill?".
I put it to him that there is considerable significance. Many of us on this side of the House spent a lot of time, when we debated the Bill that set up the referendum, arguing strongly that this was not an issue that the British public wanted put to them in a referendum, and that it was certainly not at the top of their list of priorities. I suggest that the read-across ought to be that the Government, rather than concentrating on constitutional Bills for which there seems to be very little public support, should concentrate on bread and butter issues.
The Deputy Prime Minister has repeatedly said that the three Bills that we will consider-the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the constituency boundaries and referendum Bill, which we have already considered, and the Bill to reform the House of Lords-are part of the greatest reform package since 1832. Therefore, if one plank is shown to be fallible, one would assume that, even in the view of the Deputy Prime Minister, other parts would be as well. I do not know what the Minister's experience was when he canvassed, but after the canvassing that I did my judgment is that there is as little public support for, or interest in, the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill-and I predict the same for the Bill to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a Senate-as the yes campaign garnered in the referendum.
I will put two questions to the Minister. First, what is the urgency to consider the Bill on Report, in particular as the Government have decided very wisely that a period of three months' reflection is sensible between Committee and Report for the health Bill? That is a welcome development and-I think the Minister will agree-a clear precedent for doing a similar thing with this major constitutional Bill. Secondly, does the Minister, with his long political experience, have any grounds for thinking-perhaps I have missed something-that there is strong public demand for the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and for the Bill to abolish
10 May 2011 : Column 778
Lord Cormack: My Lords, I will briefly but thoroughly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said. When one talks to people in the country, they say that they are desperately concerned about matters of health, education, taxation and all of those things. At the moment, they are deeply concerned about events in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. They find it quite incredible that the two Houses of Parliament, and this one in particular, should detain themselves by debating measures that are of no possible benefit to the public good, are diversionary and-to most people, whether it be in the club or the Dog and Duck-are of very little interest or relevance.
Along with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I urge that we have a period of reflection. We should recognise that the constitution is the most important part of our democratic heritage. It should be the plaything of nobody, and certainly the consolation prize of nobody. Therefore, I hope that the Minister, who will shortly address the House, will recognise the strength of feeling not only in the House but in the country, and will discuss with government business managers how the House can more properly and sensibly address issues that are of real importance to the people of this country.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there is nothing at present, without the Bill, to prevent the Conservative-led Government from serving a term of five years? The Bill is not necessary to achieve that end, unless the Government were to implode from within.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Wallace of Tankerness): My Lords, I have heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. I am sorry to disappoint, but it is worth pointing out that this Bill was introduced in the other place on 22 July last year. It had its Second Reading in the other place on 13 September and was introduced in your Lordships' House on 19 January this year. I do not think that, by any stretch of the imagination, it could be said that the Bill is being rushed through. There has been plenty of opportunity for scrutiny, and there will be further opportunity today and on a second day on Report in your Lordships' House. This in no way diminishes the Government's attention to the important issues facing this country-not least addressing the deficit that we inherited from the party opposite.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the opportunity has not been taken, so we must now build on the work done by this House. I am very disappointed in the lack of interest in this rather staggeringly important constitutional Bill-which confirms that this House seems to have the same view as the people in the Dog and Duck to whom the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred. I will leave it to noble Lords to get to the Dog and Duck.
This is an important Bill: it will have an impact constitutionally. It is a Bill to take seriously in the course of this scrutiny at Report stage, which will last two days. I am grateful to the usual channels for providing two days, which seems entirely appropriate. It is time for this House to take decisions, building, I would respectfully submit, on the work that this House and the other place have done. When I say building on the work that has been done, I include the work done by the Select Committees in both Houses-the one chaired by Mr Graham Allen in the other place, and the one chaired by my noble friend Lady Jay. I am very glad to see my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith and other members of the committee in the Chamber today.
We as a party support fixed-term Parliaments. However, the investigations done by both Houses, including both Houses' Select Committees, have increased Parliament's doubts about fixed-term Parliaments. Our own committee, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution, said that the case made by the Government for fixed-term Parliaments had "not been made out" to its satisfaction. A similar view was expressed by the House of Commons Select Committee.
There were three specific anxieties that underlay that view. The first was the length; both Select Committees concluded that four years was better than five. Secondly, both Select Committees concluded that the provisions could be abused by a Prime Minister who, with a majority in the House of Commons, could go for an election whenever he wanted. Thirdly, the Houses of Parliament were seeking to include in legislation the House conventions in determining when a Government lost the confidence of the House of Commons, which is a critical part of our constitution.
These anxieties were well expressed in good debates on Second Reading and in Committee in this House. In today's Report stage we on this side of the House intend to try to address those specific anxieties, and to support the Government and other Members of the House who have tabled amendments to try to resolve them. However, resolving these specific problems will not deal with the underlying sense of anxiety which still exists in this House about the Bill.
In those circumstances, the opposition party-the Labour Party-intends to support the amendment to be introduced by a number of Cross-Benchers, including the noble Lords, Lord Pannick, Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Armstrong, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. The effect of their amendment is that if there is to be a fixed-term Parliament after each subsequent election, it will have to be approved by a resolution of both Houses. That seems to us a suitable response to a constitutional Bill which is of such importance but which has been introduced without pre-legislative scrutiny,
10 May 2011 : Column 780
The first three groups of amendments concern the length of a Parliament, the issue being whether it should be four or five years. We have evidence on this: I refer to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, in Committee. He completely demolished the argument that it is a matter of judgment-the implication being that if it is a matter of judgment, any period would do. If it is a matter of judgment, it is all the more important, as the noble and learned Lord pointed out, to analyse what the "good judges" have been saying about what the right conclusion is. The first judge, I would respectfully ask the Government to bear in mind, is the person who introduced the current arrangements, namely Herbert Asquith. When introducing them in 1911, he rightly said that a maximum of five years was likely to produce Parliaments lasting about four years, which is close enough to the previous election or the coming election to ensure that Parliament remained properly accountable to the people.
The weight of academic evidence given to both Select Committees was overwhelmingly of the view that a fixed-term Parliament should be four years rather than five. Professor Robert Hazell told the Commons Select Committee:
"The balance between four and five years is more even than folk memory might suggest. But those parliaments which lasted for five years did so because the government had become unpopular and did not want to hold an earlier election. The Prime Minister stayed on hoping that his or her party's luck might change. It did not, save for the case of John Major, who scraped through with a narrow majority in 1992".
The Bill seeks to make it the norm that we should have five years. I would respectfully ask this House, if it wishes to have a proper process of scrutiny, to acknowledge where the weight of evidence is from all those who have looked at the issue, including Members of this House. I also pray in aid the following people: Mr Tony Wright, who introduced a Bill saying four years; my noble friend Lord Rooker, who is greatly respected in this House, and who introduced a Private Member's Bill in the House of Commons saying four years; and Mr David Howarth, no longer an MP, who introduced a Bill for fixed-term Parliaments which said four years and had the support, as co-sponsors of the Bill, of Mr Simon Hughes, Mr Chris Huhne, Mr Nick Clegg, Mr Danny Alexander, Mr David Heath, Ms Lynne Featherstone and Mr Paul Burstow. I mention these names only because every single one of them, with the exception of Mr Simon Hughes, is now a Minister in a Government proposing five years. Furthermore, the noble Lord, Lord Plant, who is not
10 May 2011 : Column 781
Perhaps I may say with respect that if you are responding to a proper analysis of the evidence, the conclusion would be four years, not five years. If it should be four years, should it be four years for this Parliament or should it be five years for this Parliament and four years for subsequent Parliaments? In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said-I suggest with a heavy heart-that it should be five years to give this Government their coalition agreement, but four years thereafter. As I made clear on 21 March at cols. 505 and 512, I do not support that siren song. I have three reasons for not supporting it.
First, if five years is wrong for the future, it must be wrong for this Parliament. Secondly, if the reason that five years is wrong is that you end up with an "awful" fifth year, to quote Professor Blackburn, imagine the circumstances that we are currently facing. We have a number of politicians, the Liberal Democrats, who are greatly respected by all in this House. Let us assume that they do what every other politician in their position-that is, facing defeat-does; namely, they cling on until the last moment. If we pass a Fixed-term Parliament Bill of five years, we will allow the Liberal Democrats to do what MPs have done since time immemorial-to cling on to the bitter end. We are going to have an awful fifth year. I strongly recommend not succumbing to the siren song of five years for this Parliament and four for the next.
The third reason that we should not succumb to the argument is this. I can imagine no worse precedent than a Government coming into power and setting in place special arrangements for how long the first Government should be and then changing the constitution for everyone else thereafter.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I commend the noble and learned Lord on the eloquence and persuasiveness of what he has been saying so far, but might it be the case that the fifth-year syndrome he has described, and to which Professor Hazell referred-that the fifth year is always difficult-might just be a final-year syndrome? Might it not then become the fourth year that would be misery hereafter?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: No, I do not think it would. Can you identify a third or fourth year which has been as been as awful as the fourth or fifth year? I also refer to what was said during debates in Committee by the professor and noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, who sadly is not in his place. He said that it was extremely unlikely that any Government would have something proper to fill in their fifth year. So there is no historical precedent for the fourth year being as bad as the fifth year, nor do I think that if the fixed term were four years would the third to fourth year become awful. But that is a matter of judgment for this House to make. My own judgment of it is that the
10 May 2011 : Column 782
We in the Opposition are going to vote for Amendment 1, which alters the date of the first election from five years from the date of the last election to four years, and we are then going to vote for four years thereafter. We are going to vote for what might be called the "Baroness Boothroyd, Lord Pannick, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Lord Armstrong" amendment because we do not think that the Government dealt effectively with the fundamental criticisms of fixed terms.
Lord Rennard: The previous Labour Prime Minister of course went for five years. If this legislation is passed in its current form, would a future Labour Government amend it to change back the fixed term from five years to four years?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I cannot commit a future Labour Government, but people should form their own view about whether fifth years have been good years. We should look at this in a non-partisan way. Do Mr Major or other Labour Prime Ministers in the past who have gone a fifth year fit the rubric of Professor Hazell; namely, people hanging on to the last moment and ending up in a situation where there is a pretty awful year? Four years is good, because it means that you are accountable to the electorate much more regularly. It would probably have meant three or four more general elections since 1945. Let us remember what the much revered Deputy Prime Minister told the Select Committees. He said that the reason for which these provisions were being introduced was to make politicians more accountable to the electorate. It is quite hard to see how you make politicians more accountable to the electorate by reducing the number of general elections. In those circumstances, we will vote for four years for this Parliament, for four years for the future and for the Boothroyd/Butler/Armstrong/Pannick amendment. I beg to move.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: My Lords, I support four years rather than five years for the reasons which I spelt out in Committee and to which I had intended to return when we reached Amendment 3, but maybe I should address that a little earlier in view of certain observations made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, with which I agree.
I put my name to Amendment 3 last week because it followed very largely the amendment which was debated at length in Committee. I was therefore surprised to receive an e-mail over the weekend informing me that the noble and learned Lord was seeking to withdraw Amendment 3 and to substitute Amendments 1 and 2, which we now have, and asking me whether I would support them instead. I say at once that I cannot support Amendment 1.
At Second Reading, the noble and learned Lord accepted that it is open to any Government at any stage to indicate the date of the next election. That can be done within existing constitutional arrangements, as I believe everybody accepts. It did not require an Act of Parliament to establish May 2015 as the date for the next general election, but that is the course that the Government have chosen to take. There is nothing as such that is wrong with that course; it is the date that they have chosen and have put in the Bill.
If, therefore, May 2015 was to be challenged by the Opposition, surely it should have been challenged in Committee and not left to the 59th minute of the 11th hour before Report. Far from challenging that date, the amendment in Committee built on Clause 1(2). It assumed May 2015 and then substituted in Clause 1(3) "fourth" for "fifth", and that is the amendment which I supported and still support.
It is true that, in response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, on 21 March at col. 508, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that it had always been the Opposition's intention to challenge the date in Clause 1(2), but that was not what they did. It is true also that at the end of the debate in Committee, it was argued that if four years was to be the norm for future Governments, it should be the norm for this Government. I do not agree. The Select Committee pointed out in paragraph 17 of its report the crucial,
It is the same as the distinction that was drawn very clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. He accepted May 2015 as the date for this Government because that is the date that any Government could have fixed. He thought that it was unnecessary to include it in an Act of Parliament, but there it is. Nevertheless, he favoured four years thereafter.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Is it not right that the same restrictions apply to this Government in this Parliament up to 2015 as would apply after 2015? If the same restrictions on having a general election apply in this Parliament, why is five years okay for this Parliament but not the next?
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: I am grateful for the noble and learned Lord's intervention, but he is ignoring the crucial distinction between the two issues. One is the issue as to what this Government are going to do. He accepts as we all accept that this Government can choose 2015 if they want. The issue that we ought to be discussing is not for this Government but for future Governments. It is entirely consistent, if I may say so, for us to accept May 2015 for this Government yet to say that the norm hereafter should be only four years.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: I wonder if I could draw the noble and learned Lord's attention to the conclusion of the Select Committee report. He is right
10 May 2011 : Column 784
"We acknowledge the political imperative behind the coalition Government's wish to state in advance its intent to govern for the full five year term, but this could have been achieved under the current constitutional conventions".
The noble and learned Lord has already drawn attention to that point. We did not get a response from the Government on it and I understand that there has been no particular response forthcoming. But I emphasise that the conclusion of the committee was that a four-year term was preferable.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: I certainly had not read the report, which I read carefully, as having drawn the distinction that I am seeking to draw between what this Government are going to do now and what future Governments should do. I had certainly not understood the report as suggesting that the committee would support four years for this Government. Thus, I am setting aside what we all accept-that any Government can choose when they wish to go to the electorate. That is all I have to say on Amendment 1. If it is put to the vote-and it appears that it will be-I shall vote against it.
Since the noble and learned Lord has gone on to develop the whole argument in relation to Amendments 1 and 3, perhaps it would be convenient for the House for me to develop my reasons for saying why I agree with him that for subsequent Parliaments the norm should be four years rather than five. That was, as he said, the clear conclusion, which has been confirmed, of the Select Committee. The reason it gave was an obvious one: that five years,
It is not surprising that the Select Committee reached that view, since it was the unanimous view of all the experts who gave evidence before the committee, including such acknowledged experts as Professor Dawn Oliver and Professor Vernon Bogdanor. Exactly the same was true of all the experts who gave evidence in the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons, including Professor Robert Hazell and Professor Blackburn. As has been pointed out, Professor Blackburn is particularly important because he has made a specific study of this issue.
If some of this evidence had been one way and some the other, or indeed if it had been subjected to any sustained challenge when it was given, one could understand the Government sticking with their five years. However, the evidence was all one way and was virtually unchallenged. That evidence simply cannot be brushed aside or disregarded, otherwise there is really no point in having Select Committees, or them listening to evidence, because the witnesses would all
10 May 2011 : Column 785
Alongside all that weight of evidence, many noble Lords also spoke at Second Reading in support: the noble Lords, Lord Hennessy, Lord Grocott, Lord Norton and Lord Morgan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, were all in favour of four years. To that list we must now add the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup-I do not know whether he is in his place-who made a most impressive speech at Committee in favour of four years; as well as my noble friend Lord Martin, and of course the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, himself. All these noble Lords were well aware of the only argument that I know of in favour of five years, which is roughly as follows: it takes an incoming Government a year to get going and the last year is spent in preparing for the election, which leaves only three years of a five-year Government for implementing policy. If there is anything in that argument at all-and I suggest there is nothing-it is surely outweighed by the need to make Parliament more, rather than less, accountable to the electorate, The electorate should be able to get rid of Governments who are tired and unpopular, for whatever reason, after four years rather than five. That is why, while I will support the Government on Amendment 1, I hope that they will accept Amendment 3.
Lord Cormack: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, will hardly be surprised that I find myself very much in agreement. I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, suggested that I sang a siren song; I do not think that I did, but I will risk a siren encore. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, demonstrated with impeccable logic that there is nothing contradictory in the present Government, having said that they wish to serve for a full five years, doing that, and, having sent a piece of legislation to this House and asked for our opinion, in our saying, "Okay, if you want to do that, do it, but thereafter we believe that it should be four years". That seems to be an entirely reasonable position to take.
Every moment of our debates on the Bill-and I have been present for almost all of them-has illustrated to me that this is an unnecessary and unfortunate exercise. I also think that every word uttered by the noble and learned Lord, as well as the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, underlines the need for pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill of this sort. Had the
10 May 2011 : Column 786
The point of the exercise is that the Government, having brought themselves together as a coalition-I admire the courage of all the parties in doing that and I support the coalition, as I have made plain on many occasions-wanted to try to reinforce that position by making a statement or declaration that they would serve for five years. That declaration would of itself have been quite sufficient, and I am glad to see the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, nodding assent at this point. We did not need to take up time with this legislation-a point already referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and by me-and I regret that it is taking so much time. However, if we are to fulfil the constitutional duty of this House, we must try to put the Bill into somewhat better order than it was in when it came to us. That has not been an easy task with any of the Bills that we have recently had the privilege of examining, and the same will apply tomorrow.
Therefore, I will take the same line in the Division Lobbies, if it is necessary so to do, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. I do not think that the position to which I referred at an earlier stage of the Bill was illogical or unsound, and I shall stand by that, but I shall certainly vote for the sunset clause that stands in the name of the noble Baroness and her noble friends on the Cross Benches.
Lord Tyler: The noble Lord has been a doughty defender of the constitution for many years in both Houses. I respect him very much for that and I have expressed that view previously. Can he explain to your Lordships why he now thinks, after 100 years of experience of a quinquennial maximum for Parliament, we should suddenly make a radical change to a maximum of four years? What particular experience over those 100 years has changed his attitude?
Lord Cormack: My memory does not go back throughout the whole of that century, as the noble Lord knows. In a sense, I have already answered that question because I do not think that we should be wasting our time with this Bill at all. I consider it to be unnecessary but, as the Government have determined that we should have fixed-term Parliaments, it is right that we should address the term. It is perfectly reasonable to say, "All right, you've made your statement that you wish to have five years. Please have them, but we believe, having weighed the evidence placed before committees of both Houses, that for the future it should be four years". However, I know as well as the noble Lord and every noble Lord present today that no Parliament can bind its successor, and the first Act of a new Parliament could be to repeal the whole shooting match-it might be the best thing that it could do, but that is another matter entirely.
The point that I was about to make when the noble Lord intervened was that I believe there is a lot to be said in almost every constitutional measure for a
10 May 2011 : Column 787
Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, but for one point, I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick. On the principal question of the term, he and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton are right: all the evidence points one way-the evidence of international experience and of the experts who were before the Select Committee on the Constitution, on which I also had the privilege to serve-and all the history points in favour of four years.
The principle points are in favour of it as well. As has already been pointed out, the constitutional programme put forward by the coalition is supposed to be a programme of empowering the people, not disempowering them. It is worth reminding ourselves of what was said by the Deputy Prime Minister in his evidence to the Select Committee that,
Increasing the term of a Parliament so that it necessarily lasts for five years cannot conceivably meet those objectives, and I have never heard any explanation given by the coalition as to how it does. Nor, indeed, have we heard any explanation from the coalition as to why five years was chosen. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, pointed to the evidence that was given to the committee which illustrates that the figure was chosen before the evidence was there.
It is worth also spending a moment more on the purpose of pre-legislative scrutiny. It is not an answer, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said, to say, "We are scrutinising it".
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I apologise for interrupting my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith but he is obviously unaware that there is evidence as to how the five years came in. Mr David Laws' book states that Andrew Stunnell pointed out that,
Lord Goldsmith: Noble Lords will notice from this that over many years, both in this House and at the Bar before, my noble and learned friend and I have
10 May 2011 : Column 788
On the point about pre-legislative scrutiny, it is not only a question of having an opportunity to scrutinise in this House; the committee asked the Minister responsible, "What do the people think about this? Have you asked the people what they think not only about the principle but also the term?". As noble Lords will see in the evidence, that has never been done; there has been no attempt to consult on that kind of question. The Minister drew attention to two newspaper polls and a survey by the Scottish Youth Parliament, which were no doubt very worthy, but, as far as I am aware, they were not on the question of term but simply on the question of fixed-term Parliaments.
So the Government had nothing to support their view other-and we come now to the evidence to which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has drawn attention-than a political decision, a political compromise, that this Parliament was going to last for five years. We all agree in this House that that could have been done by a statement by the Government that they were going to do that and sticking to their guns. It did not need a Fixed-term Parliament Bill at all.
That brings me to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that we should allow the Government to have five years this time round and four years thereafter. With respect, that makes no sense to me at all. The recommendation in the report from the Select Committee on the Constitution was not that it should be five years this time and four years thereafter. It was very clear in saying at paragraph 62 that,
When I put my name to this, I did not for a moment think that the report was saying that we should let the Government have five years this time and four years thereafter. They could have achieved that if they had done what the committee wanted, which was to spend the time during this Parliament to consult properly, reach a view, legislate for hereafter but not to rush this through in this way. So I have no hesitation at all in rejecting the shabby compromise that ended up with a five-year term in the discussions to which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer has referred, and I would reject any compromise on four years. If it is to be four years for a fixed-term, it should be four years now and hereafter.
Lord Lloyd of Berwick: The noble and learned Lord will not have overlooked paragraph 17 of the report, which explains the important distinction between the Government's immediate concern that they should continue for five years and the long-term issue of the fixed-term Parliament.
Lord Goldsmith: That is the point. The Government could have said that they had decided that they wanted the term to last for five years, that they would do that
10 May 2011 : Column 789
Lord Pannick: My Lords, I, too, support these amendments. If we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, a change to the constitutional practice over the past 100 years advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, then four years is manifestly preferable to five. The Constitution Committee, of which I, too, am a member, heard evidence from a vast number of witnesses who advocated four years. Almost all of them did so on one simple, fundamental ground: you do not enhance the accountability of Parliament to the people, which is the aim stated in the coalition agreement, by reducing in practice the length of time between general elections.
There was a further piece of evidence, which I add to that cited by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, which came from the Deputy Prime Minister himself. At paragraph 57 of our report, we quote the extraordinary evidence given to us by the Deputy Prime Minister last October, when we considered the Government's programme for constitutional reform. Mr Clegg told us that he did not accept that,
I can introduce the Deputy Prime Minister to many people in the Dog and Duck referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who are very keen to exercise a right to vote in general elections at least every four years to determine who represents them in Parliament and what the policies of their Government should be.
It is quite bizarre that the Government's response to the diminution in public respect for Parliament and the search for methods of making Members of Parliament more accountable to their constituents should be to propose to insulate Members of Parliament so that there will be a longer period, in practice, before they are answerable at the ballot box. When the Minister responds to this debate, will he please tell the House how a five-year term promotes accountability?
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I must confess that I was in the minority on the report of the committee that the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, chaired. I was one of two people who felt that it would be incorrect to move towards always having four-year Parliaments. My reason for this was much as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, a very old friend of mine, expressed it. It is just that if you only have four years for a Parliament, you spend your first year in power finding out what it is all about, getting to know your civil servants and how the Treasury works-how you squeeze a bit more money out of it and so forth. In four years, you then have just two years in which to put your thoughts, policy and plans for the future into
10 May 2011 : Column 790
From my experience, five years would therefore give a Government at least three years in the middle to think what they want to do and how they will put it over, so that is the right way to go. To those who do not know me well-there are quite a few present today who do-the reason I came to that in our debate, which the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, chaired very well, was that I was in Parliament in the Commons for 23 years and have been in this House for 11 or 12. I served in three Governments and I therefore got a fairly and inevitably tough view of how difficult it is being in Government and getting on with your policies. I was also then a Government Chief Whip but that is another story-it is not like being a Minister at all.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: After my personal experience through those years, I therefore think that four years fixed for a Government is not enough. I would much rather see it for five years, whether it is fixed or can be changed by the next Parliament. I beg the pardon of my noble friend, who is someone I know very well.
Lord Cormack: Indeed, and I remember my Chief Whip with great affection, but would my noble friend not accept that the two most successful periods of Conservative Government in recent history were both of four years?
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: That is the start of a very good argument as to whether they were the most successful. It much depends, obviously, on who is the Prime Minister and who is the Chancellor. That will have an enormous effect and will make one Government better than the other, simply because the Ministers at the top are better.
Lord Lea of Crondall: Would the noble Lord like to reflect again on the doctrine that Governments tend to do nothing in their first year? Would he like me to enumerate how many major Bills-not just any little old Bills to do with the upkeep of the Battersea dogs' home-have been done in this Government's first year? Perhaps he has that in a list or perhaps the Chief Whip would like to enumerate it. It is exactly one year and I am sure it has been quite a busy one.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: Yes, that is true and we know very well at the moment that this Government, despite having to be a coalition, have lots of thoughts planned, but there is a great deal of difference between planning in advance and getting on with the really difficult problems when you have got to know what the Treasury is promising you for money in the future, et cetera. I am not going to go on repeating myself, but I would very much like colleagues in this House to think carefully about the real advantages of having a five-year Parliament over a four-year one.
Lord Richard: My Lords, the noble Lord is dealing with this great difficulty of Governments coming in, getting to know their civil servants and all the rest of it. That, of course, assumes that there has been a change of Government at the election. If there has not been a change of Government at the election, surely you do not need that initial year.
Lord Richard: The noble Lord says that you need a five-year Parliament because you spend the first year getting to know your civil servants, finding out what the Treasury is going to say and generally getting your tackle in order. If there has not been a change of Government, if it is the same Government coming in as was governing before the election, surely none of that applies.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I think that is a perfectly fair point; I cede the point, but the fact is that Governments do change a great deal. We have seen it in recent years and it will go on. Others will win; they will come in for the first time. Without wishing to go into detail, I totally agree with the description by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, of what a five-year Parliament could do, but I think that that is the right way to go and that this House should be very careful before backing a four-year Parliament.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, would the noble Lord care to ponder on the thought that the British public might wish to have a Government that is taking into account public opinion once every four years as opposed to once every five years? His argument is that the fifth year is the year when the Government of the day is having regard to the next election and public opinion. In my experience, the public form an opinion about Governments fairly quickly and to ask them to wait for five years before expressing that view is rather long.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I only make the point, before I give way to others, that it is very interesting to see just how many people voted on the AV matter and all that a few days ago: just 42 per cent. One may think that most of the public are longing and waiting to have a vote; it is not true. Most members of the public are very difficult to interest in politics and many members of the public would much rather only have to vote once every five years rather than every four.
Lord Owen: My Lords, I would like to inject, not legal points, but a few raw political questions. Why are we being asked for this legislation? It is because a coalition was formed. If we go back to the circumstances in which that coalition was formed, the general view was that the purpose of that coalition, above all else, was to deliver a programme, over a fairly long period, to deal with the very serious economic situation, namely, a structural fiscal deficit. It seems to me not an accident
10 May 2011 : Column 792
The political reality is that coalitions like fixed-term Parliaments. Why? Because they know that, unless there is a restriction on a Prime Minister's right to call for an election, which by common precedent the Queen or monarch grants after a period of six months of government, in order to curb that one of the coalition partners, namely the most junior or smaller coalition partner, wants to be sure that the Prime Minister cannot cut and run when the opinion polls are in favour of the majority part of the coalition at the disadvantage of the minority part of the coalition. You can have all the legal arguments that you like but this seems to me purely practical, sensible politics. It would be quite wrong to deprive the coalition-if it wished it, which is what this is predominantly about-of the ability to exercise its right to go for five years, which is the constitutional precedent. It wishes to lock itself into a situation where only under rather exceptional circumstances can an election be called during the five-year period. That is perfectly legitimate. I am in favour of five years, as the Government wish, and in favour of a fixed-term Parliament as a mechanism for making coalitions successful. In Europe we have seen that coalitions can be successful but they need certain parameters, one of which is knowing how long they are likely to last.
The wider question, which is really the issue of debate, is: should the period be four years or five? I am not sure. The great advantage of the British constitution has been its flexibility. Most people consider five years the limit but, for a variety of very good reasons, Prime Ministers with large majorities, both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, have chosen to go after four years-broadly speaking, for the benefit of the country as a whole. I am against putting restrictions on this, so I am open-minded about trying to retain some flexibility within a fixed-term Parliament. I am therefore not convinced by the argument that we should choose four years. I am attracted to an interesting amendment that is to be moved later, although I do not want in any way to pre-empt it.
My fundamental point about fixed-term Parliaments, if we are making this legislation for the future, is that this is a profound constitutional change. It deserves a referendum-a proper referendum. What we have just experienced was not a proper referendum but a rigged one. If we had had a proper referendum, there would have been three options on the ballot paper. I do not know what the right choice is for a referendum on fixed-term Parliaments; some people may say that it is three years, others four or five. Maybe there should be only two options. However, if there is a body of opinion in the country that thinks that, like Australia, you should have only a three-year term, that should be represented in a referendum.
Referendums are not to be part of a political fix; they are part of our constitutional future. If we are to have fixed-term Parliaments-I hope that eventually we do; I would support them-then let us have a proper referendum, let the period be something that people can reflect on and make their judgment, and let it not be handed down to them as a political fix. There is a big warning in the referendum that we have just gone through. The country spotted a manipulative political fix of a referendum. People knew and felt that they ought to have been given the choice of whether there should be proportional representation. Furthermore, they also spotted something else: they should have been given that choice after the coalition had been in office for at least a period of three to four years so that they could make a judgment on coalitions. Let us have an end to rigged referendums. Let us accept referendums on major constitutional questions, and let them be open and proper choices. Since I think that ultimately we will have to have another referendum on European entry-I do not particularly relish it, but I suspect that it is coming-let us learn that that referendum must be a proper choice too.
On the question of sunset clauses or anything like that, I see great flexibility when an incoming Government are formed. I like the idea that when they are formed they choose under what restriction they will operate. If they are a coalition, as likely as not they will choose that they wish to have the rigidity, if you like, of a fixed term, and let them choose whether it will be three years, four years or five. That seems to me to be their choice. If they come in with a large majority but do not want to have the inability to call an election earlier, I am not sure that that should not be part of the flexibility of the constitution. If they have a full majority, they can legislate for it anyhow. We might do better to recognise this.
When the noble and learned Lord speaks at the end of this debate, I urge him to think hard about this, and maybe go away and consult before taking a final position. The Government have got themselves into quite a mess and alienated a lot of their friends over some of these constitutional provisions. The case for pre-legislative examination has been made very strongly. Above all, the Government should recognise that they are entitled to put this box around their own negotiations. They had to listen to some people who said, "You can't possibly give up the right of the House of Commons to pass a vote of no confidence". That was, again, a foolish suggestion but they moved away from it. Any pre-legislative committee would certainly have exposed that that was not workable. The more flexibility that is put into fixed-term Parliaments, the more likely they are to get general acceptance, and the more likely they are to win support in a referendum.
Lord Wills: My Lords, I rise briefly to support this amendment, primarily because it will give the Government a chance to reconsider a key part of the Bill. The case for a fixed term of four years is not beyond argument, although my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and many other noble Lords have made a good case
10 May 2011 : Column 794
However, there is a principled argument for the Government's position. It was put forward, for example, from the Cross Benches, by the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler, from all their experience of serving the state over many years. It is an argument rooted in the importance of stability for the governance of this country. This is not a negligible argument, but it comes up against the argument that accountability should be paramount. That is a judgment that I support. More importantly, it is a judgment that almost all noble Lords who have so far spoken in these debates have favoured. It is overwhelmingly, as we have heard, the view of all the experts who have given evidence to both Houses of Parliament. The search for an accommodation between the principles of accountability and stability is fundamental to the constitutional arrangements of all modern democracies. The question that still has not been adequately addressed in all the parliamentary scrutiny of this legislation is: who should make the decision about how best to make that accommodation?
Today we have heard the case for greater consultation. Even if the Government did not take the decision in favour of five years quite as casually and self-interestedly as the account given by Mr David Laws MP suggests, it is still a fact that there has been no public consultation on this fundamental issue. This legislation seeks to determine the shape of future Parliaments, yet those most affected by it-the voters of this country-have not yet been asked what they think about the judgment that the Government have made. They should be asked. We have heard a great deal about the views of academic experts and politicians; what about the people we all serve? I am not in favour of referendums in general. I am certainly not in favour of a referendum on this point. However, I am in favour of the Government embarking on one of the many forms of public engagement that already exist-exercises in deliberative democracy and so on. They are available to the Government, who should now take advantage of them.
Listening to all the rhetoric of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, you would think they believed in the greater engagement of the public in policy formation between elections. Here is an opportunity for them to put some substance into all this airy rhetoric. If your Lordships support this amendment, I fear it will not change the Government's mind on how long a term should be. This Government have shown very little inclination to listen to your Lordships' House on all their measures of constitutional reform. However, the amendment will at least provide an opportunity for taking a pause. My noble friend Lord Grocott made this case persuasively at the start of this debate.
If the Government can take a pause to consult widely on measures such as NHS reform-profoundly important as they are-surely they can do the same with this important measure of constitutional reform. I hope that your Lordships will give the Government an opportunity to do so.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I set out in Committee three reasons why I felt strongly that a fixed-term Parliament of five years was more appropriate than one of four years. I shall not repeat those arguments at length. However, since I made the first argument there has been even more discussion about the principle of pre-legislative scrutiny, and there has been a considerable demand in this House and elsewhere for more pre-legislative scrutiny. A five-year fixed-term Parliament in many ways incentivises a Government to have more pre-legislative scrutiny than has previously been the case. If a Government feel that they may be in for only four years, and there was a four-year fixed-term Parliament, we would have rather less pre-legislative scrutiny than would happen if they knew they would last for five years.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who said earlier that there is a clear danger that a four-year Parliament would not provide much time in the first year for pre-legislative scrutiny, and we all know that in the last year of almost any Parliament there is perhaps more attention on campaigning than on legislating. This would mean that in a four-year fixed-term Parliament perhaps only two years would be devoted to serious legislative work. Many people believe that in the model of the United States, which has a four-year fixed-term, there are only two years of effective governing and two years of campaigning.
Secondly, I pointed out in Committee-I thought that perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wills, would have said something about this-that there should be consistency in the way in which you conduct elections in terms of how you regulate constituency election expenditure. The previous Labour Government brought in rules that kick in four years and seven months after a general election and last for 60 months after the previous general election. In other words, the rules last to control expenditure at constituency level in general elections only for the final six months of a five-year Parliament. As we said in debates a year or two ago, it is not logical to have rules controlling constituency expenditure in that last six months of a five-year Parliament unless there is a five-year fixed-term Parliament.
My third argument relates to our recent debates of great controversy. However, we decided in legislation that reviews of parliamentary constituency boundaries would take place every five years. The principle of revising constituency boundaries to take into account shifting population is recognised by all parties. However, the frequency with which that takes place is the subject of some dispute. Revising constituency boundaries more frequently than every five years would have many disadvantages and would certainly be unpopular in another place. The reviews of constituency boundaries should be synchronised with general elections.
There is, however, an additional argument that points in favour of a five-year fixed term. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are about to
10 May 2011 : Column 796
Lord Martin of Springburn: I thank the noble Lord, but it is my understanding that the five years was a facility given by this Government so that there would be no clash with other elections. Four years was the norm. The five years was an accommodation that suited this Government.
Lord Rennard: In response to demand from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly not to have a clash in 2015, the Government said that they would facilitate whatever was required to postpone the elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly for a five-year, rather than a four-year, term. My understanding is that that will now become the norm in Scotland and Wales, and that people in Scotland and Wales have no desire for their parliamentary and Assembly elections to coincide with Westminster elections.
A year ago, in the general election campaign, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats said in manifestos that they wanted fixed-term Parliaments, but neither of them said for how long they should last. David Cameron said before the general election that he would seriously consider the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, but again did not say how long the period should be. So none of the three main parties specified a year ago during the general election campaign what period would be appropriate for fixed-term Parliaments.
For all the reasons I have given-the fact that there will be more pre-legislative scrutiny; we will tie in constituency election expenditure; we will tie in the boundary reviews; and we will tie in processes with the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments-I think that a fixed-term Parliament of five years is most appropriate.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Before the noble Lord sits down, I hope that he will forgive me for feeling that he might be using a slightly cynical argument. I have listened carefully, because I know how experienced he is in politics, but given that the coalition Government came in and announced that there would be a five-year term and then produced major constitutional change legislation without pre-legislative scrutiny, I find that argument hard to take. The noble Lord referred to his experience in the referendum campaign. My experience was that more people were saying, "When can we have a general election?" than even were fired up on AV. Those who claim that the number of people turning out in the referendum on AV is an indication of how strongly people feel about the Government may be wrong.
Lord Rennard: With great respect to the noble Baroness, I did not refer in my remarks to the events of last week in the referendum. I was simply making the point that so many people here argue for more pre-legislative scrutiny. I believe that there would be more pre-legislative scrutiny in a five-year fixed term Parliament than there would in a four-year one, because in a four-year one, the Government would be so anxious to do so much that they would not have as much pre-legislative scrutiny.
Lord Goldsmith: Before the noble Lord sits down, as I think that he is the first Liberal Democrat who has spoken on Report, is it his party's position that fewer general elections increases democratic accountability?
Lord Rennard: It is the position of my party that general elections in which people get what they vote for is the most fundamental democratic reform. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that if those people who support other systems, such as first past the post, really had the courage of their convictions, they would have allowed proportional representation to be on the ballot paper last week, as I believe that one day it will be.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, my recollection is that the noble Lord's party voted against alternatives being put forward in the referendum alongside AV. Many of us felt very strongly that the public were being given about one-third of a question in the referendum rather than the whole question, which would have given them a choice. For the noble Lord now to claim that somehow the Liberal Democrats are in favour of the widest possible consultation is a bit hollow.
Lord Rennard: We are rather going off the subject of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Briefly, I remind the noble Baroness that her party's manifesto promised a referendum on AV but no other subject. The Conservative Party promised as part of the coalition negotiations to have a referendum on AV but on no other subject. The Liberal Democrats won only 57 out of 650 seats and were therefore not in a position to insist on what we really wanted, which was a referendum on proportional representation.
Lord Dobbs: I have listened to this debate and the previous one with fascination. We have gone today from Herbert Asquith in 1911 to Mr Chris Huhne and Mr David Laws-and other notorious parliamentary double acts. We have been from the dog to the duck and all the way to Battersea Dogs Home. We have heard that this is a matter of high principle. Perhaps that is right. I can just imagine the scene when Mr Gordon Brown in 2007 was urged to go for an early election. Did he say, "No, Miliband. Get behind me with your temptation. It has been only two years since the last election and I must soldier on to the end as a matter of principle?". It might have been like that, but I thought that it was my task in my other life to ask for the suspension of disbelief. Certainly it was not like that with John Major in 1996. The question then was simple; can we win in four? "No? Okay, we'll try five". Of course, I was not with Jim Callaghan in 1978 or Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, but I suspect that the conversations in No. 10 were along much the same lines.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, talked earlier of the possibilities for abuse by Prime Ministers that might be brought in by the Bill. Perhaps I have a surprise for him; it is under the present system that Prime Ministers, when they have decided on election
10 May 2011 : Column 798
The Bill gives us stability and certainty. They are very powerful principles. This is a rare example of a Prime Minister giving up powers: no longer able to manipulate the electoral system for his own personal benefit. No other Prime Minister has had the courage to do that. Yet the new system is not as fixed and rigid as the title of the Bill suggests. There are safety valves. Every one of what we might call the early elections of the past 75 years-in 1951, 1966, and two in 1974-could have taken place under the provisions of the Bill. The Bill does not mean five years inflexibly, unnaturally and no matter what.
What are the arguments for four or five years, which is essentially what we are arguing about here? The arguments that I have heard for four years have been desperately thin. All sorts of statistical averages have been offered to us, but that is all that they are: statistical averages. There is nothing natural in the figure of four, apart from the natural inclination of Prime Ministers not to get unnaturally caught out by events or to run out of options. I am delighted to see that the noble Lord wants his party to meet the electorate sooner rather than later. Perhaps he is being more romantic than ruthless or calculating, but that does not make it right.
Of course, the fifth years of previous Governments have been pretty terrible under the present system, but that is precisely what the Bill, with its certainty, is trying to put behind us. Four years or five years? There is no magic in either figure. Either way, the world will not crumble, nor democracy disappear down an abyss. Let us put aside the pretence that this is a matter of principle; it is a matter of practicalities.
I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Wills, talk about accountability to the people and about what the people want. That is what we should be worried about. However, people never complained when Mrs Thatcher or Mr Blair chose four years rather than five because they thought that they might win. Neither did they complain when John Major, Gordon Brown and Alec Douglas-Home chose five rather than four years on the basis that they might not win after four. People seem to be happy, in this instance at least, to leave decisions to the politicians.
Should it be four or five? Noble Lords must forgive me if I am not entirely swayed by the argument that four is right simply because it was in the Lib Dem manifesto of an earlier era, and least of all because Mr Chris Huhne recommended it. I am inclined to five rather than four because it is the present system; we have a five-year term, so why change? If there is to be change from five to four, there must be a real and compelling reason rather than just a recitation of statistical averages. I also think that five rather than four will have advantages because we live in an increasingly short-term world of Twitter, Facebook and rushing to judgment. Five years might give us in this country the advantage of being able to lay foundations that might be properly assessed and will have a chance to endure. Of course, a five-year term encourages those vital twin pillars of success: stability and certainty.
We have had much discussion on the need for more pre-legislative scrutiny on matters such as this, and that is a point that I respond to-but that is not the issue at this point. The issue is simply four or five, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with five.
Lord Morgan: I listened with great fascination to the entertaining speech we just heard, which included the argument, "Why should we change? The present system works perfectly well". That seems to be an interesting litany on the entire programme of constitutional reforms, which have been introduced on very thin intellectual foundations time and again. I am, however, glad to hear a voice for continuity on the Conservative Benches.
I am driven very much to the view, after listening to very interesting speeches, that there is an overwhelming case for flexibility. It would be highly desirable, in my view, to allow circumstances to develop without a fixed term being announced. One could think historically of a large number of instances where, long before four years let alone five, the useful work of a Government has been done and there should be recourse to the people. Such was the case with the Eden Government, who lasted only two years and were-mercifully, in a sense-terminated by the Suez invasion, which let the Government off a very nasty domestic predicament.
So I think there is a case for flexibility, but historically, in recent decades, the argument has been overwhelmingly for four years. All Governments who have actually gone on for five years-the Callaghan Government in 1978, the Major Government in 1996, the Gordon Brown Government in 2009-have been Governments who were struggling, where their continuation led to economic and other difficulties, was a sign of weakness and led to significant parliamentary malaise. That is something on which we might want to reflect.
Much has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and others-and I respect the point-about the very long time it takes to get things going, meet the civil servants and organise things. Many of these arguments rest on the experience of this coalition. This coalition was formed in very curious circumstances: it was not the result of success at the general election; the voters did not vote for it. They certainly did not vote for the Liberal Democrats being in coalition with the Conservatives. The coalition was a result of a coalition agreement concocted in hectic circumstances, and that is why we have had so many measures that have required legislative scrutiny-not only on the constitution, but as we have seen very spectacularly, on health and other matters currently being considered in the House of Commons.
I feel there is a strong case for flexibility, but I also feel there is a very strong case for the argument put forward by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer. I believe it is entirely possible to accept the general principle of flexibility but to say that, if there is a choice-and nobody has argued for Parliaments lasting beyond five years, as they did before 1911-then there has to be a terminal point and there is a good case for four years. I normally listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, with great approval, and I frequently have voted and spoken with him on issues in your Lordships' House. I was disappointed in the line he
10 May 2011 : Column 800
Then there was the important distinction made by many noble Lords between this Parliament and future Parliaments. It was said, quite correctly, that this Government have the right, as any Government have, to determine their own length. The question is not whether the Government have the right to determine their own length, but whether they should do it by statute. That is what we are debating. This Bill lays down in statute at the beginning of a Parliament, for purely party-political reasons which David Laws's book exposed, that it was determined at a very early stage that there should be a Parliament whose length would be determined by statute. Furthermore, it is not only this Parliament. This Parliament is deemed to be setting the template for future Parliaments, and it follows logically one from the other. I therefore think that the case goes together, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer said, with whether this Parliament and future Parliaments should or could be considered differently.
The main point about this proposal goes beyond that. This is a very disreputable Bill. It purports to strengthen the power of the legislative over the Executive. It does not. Like many of the Bills we have had, it weakens the power of Parliament. Later, we are going to debate when a general election could be held, but here we have the Executive laying down by statute at the beginning of a term that a Parliament should last for five years and no longer. It weakens the control of Parliament, as many noble Lords have said. It also weakens popular involvement and popular control. Every inquiry we have had-the Power inquiry chaired by my noble friend Lady Kennedy and others-has testified to the evidence from people that they want regular control and authorisation of what is being done and that the Government and the House of Commons should be truly accountable. This is a way of obstructing that and making Parliament very much less accountable. At a time when the repute of Parliament has, by general consent, degenerated and when people feel that politicians are doing things of which they strongly disapprove politically and perhaps morally and that their control over Parliament is diminishing, this is exactly the wrong way to do it. Therefore this Bill-it purports to be on the basis of high principle but has, like all these other constitutional Bills, been produced for disreputable, partisan reasons-is the strongest reason why we should support the amendment moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer.
Baroness Stowell of Beeston: My Lords, I support the principle of fixed-term Parliaments and, since the start of scrutiny of the Bill, I have supported terms of five years, not because five-year terms or fixed-term Parliaments themselves offer some kind of trendy radical change but because they offer the electorate certainty. Right now, people elect a Government for up to five years, but a Prime Minister gets to decide
10 May 2011 : Column 801
Let me expand further on why I support five-year terms. In my Civil Service career, I spent five years in 10 Downing Street. I was very lucky that my time in No. 10 coincided with the tenure of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, as Cabinet Secretary, and I am pleased to see that he is in his place. I was never as distinguished as the noble Lord, but like him and the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, I have served at the heart of government in periods immediately before elections-in my case, before two general elections-and I know how Ministers and the machinery of government become distracted by them.
The noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler, do not support the principle of fixed terms; indeed they are supporting the sunset clause, which we will debate later. However, at previous stages in the passage of the Bill they voiced their view that, if we are to have fixed terms, they should be for five years in order that the country receives effective government for more than four of those five years. As a former civil servant, I wholeheartedly share that view.
My support for five-year terms goes beyond that. I listened carefully to the arguments for four years put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, on the second day in Committee. I agree absolutely with the point he made at the time about how we should determine the length of a fixed term. He said:
He was concerned that five-year terms would reduce the frequency of elections. I take a different view. To achieve the objective outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, we need terms that allow each Government to create new and additional opportunities to give the public a greater say in the decisions that affect them. The noble and learned Lord rejected the view of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that the British public did not want more general elections, and referred him to the Power commission as evidence to the contrary.
I took it upon myself to read the Power report, which was published in 2006 following an extensive study into declining participation and disillusion in the political system. It was chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. I do not agree with all the recommendations, but the analysis of why people feel disengaged is very interesting. The central point of the report is that what underlines a wide range of frustrations among the electorate is this: people feel that they do not have enough influence over the decisions that affect them. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, summarised in her introduction to the report:
The problem identified by the Power commission will not be addressed by an election every four or five years. It will be addressed by Governments introducing change like that which we are scrutinising in the House at the moment. I refer to issues such as elected police and crime commissioners, local referenda, referenda on European matters and so forth. In fact, the Power commission's analysis of the public is similar to the evidence I referred to at Second Reading, that of the Populus poll commissioned by the Times in 2009 at the height of the expenses scandal. It showed that 74 per cent of the public supported fixed-term Parliaments as a change to improve the political system. The only measures ranking higher among a list of 13 possible reforms were a recall of MPs found to have broken parliamentary rules, national referendums on major constitutional issues, and local referendums on local issues where interest warranted them. In my view, the answer to the noble and learned Lord's objective is fixed terms which allow time for people to have influence over the decisions that affect them.
Five-year fixed-term Parliaments are not a radical change to our constitution. To me, they are a concession made by politicians. If we make it, it will show some real respect for the electorate. If all Governments now and in the future use fixed five-year terms to give the British people a greater say in the decisions that affect them, this small concession might start to feel like something meaningful to the electorate. I support five-year, fixed-term Parliaments and Ido not support the amendment tabled by the noble and learned Lord.
Lord Blencathra: My Lords, I rise, as far as it is necessary, to make a few observations on this Bill. I support the five-year term. I hope that your Lordships will not consider it impertinent of me to speak on this measure since I was not in the House when it was first debated. I have had an opportunity to read the Select Committee reports and so on, and I can only offer what is perhaps the doubtful benefit of 27 years' experience in another place as an elected Member of Parliament. I went through six Parliaments in the other place, three Parliaments of four years and three of five years. I must say that, at the time, I did not feel that the five-year Parliaments were somehow depriving the British people of some fundamental human right or a great opportunity which they had missed because we had gone beyond four years.
Arguments have been made today that four is better than five. I do not accept that and see no great body of evidence for it. I accept that there is a considerable weight of opinion for it. Some of the opinion which has been given to your Lordships' distinguished Select Committees is learned, some is notable and a lot of it is tremendously experienced, but it is still opinion. I would not say that it is firm evidence which this House is therefore bound to follow and pass judgment on.
Perhaps I may deal with a point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. He pointed out that the evidence was that every time a Prime Minister
10 May 2011 : Column 803
Where Prime Ministers went to the polls after four years it was not because they wished to give the people a chance to make their Government accountable; it was not through some great constitutional issue of principle. In fact, they breached our 100-year, five-year norm because they thought there was a dashed good chance they would win, and good luck to them. Margaret Thatcher did that exceptionally well and so did Tony Blair. But let us not pretend that those four-year Parliaments came about as a result of some issue of principle or great conscience, or moral wish to give the British people more accountability. Therefore, I do not accept the argument that going beyond four years is somehow bad for the Government and nothing can be done. Considerable things were achieved towards the end of those five-year terms in office.
There has been discussion on whether the people want four or five years. I was for 27 years the Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border, the largest constituency in England. I do not a recall a Dock and Duck there, but in The George, where I had regular surgeries, I would constantly meet constituents who, within weeks of an election, irrespective of who had won, would say to me that it was time to get rid of the Government, or that they wished they would continue for 20 years. I never met a single constituent who had a view on whether it should be a five-year term or a four-year term. All they wanted was that, in due course, at some point, not more than five years, they would have the chance to express their view and for it to be taken into account.
I hope that your Lordships do not consider it too impertinent of me to comment on a Bill where I was not here for the Second Reading nor able to participate in the early stages, but it was my experience in 27 years in the other place that five-year Parliaments were no less accountable to the people than four-year ones. I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that if we move to fixed five-year terms, over a period of many years, the public will have slightly fewer general elections, but I submit once again that having an election every five years instead of every four years does not somehow remove accountability and give the British public less say in the Government whom they want. Therefore, I support the five-year term.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I thank the noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It has been a very full debate with some thoughtful and challenging contributions and strong arguments on both sides. I hope that the noble and learned Lord,
10 May 2011 : Column 804
The position taken by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is that if you are going to have four-year fixed-term Parliaments we should start with a four-year fixed-term Parliament, whereas the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, takes the view that this Parliament, elected for five years one year ago, should be allowed to complete its five-year term and thereafter move to four years. Clearly there is a distinction. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, gave a good explanation as to why five years for this Parliament is proper-the fact that very difficult decisions have to be taken. There is accountability, too, in being able to make a better judgment at the end of five years than might be possible at the end of four years.
As a Government we believe that it is not just five years for this Parliament but that there should be five years for subsequent Parliaments as well. In saying that, I was getting slightly confused with the arguments that I had to address. I understood, and I apologise if I got it wrong, that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, said that the Government could have five years if they wanted and thereafter four. I may have misunderstood what he said.
Lord Goldsmith: That is the position under our present arrangements, which do not provide for a statutory term for Parliament other than the maximum term. If that is what the Government had wanted they could have had that without the fixed-term Bill. They could simply have said, "This is what we are going to do". History and time would have told us whether that was actually what would happen. That is what I was saying.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I apologise. I misunderstood the noble and learned Lord. I thought that he was arguing for four years subsequently. But the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-as one of the three key reasons why he said it should be four and four-said that it would be wrong if the Government had one set of rules for the first Parliament and a different set of rules for the others. Of course the Government are not seeking to do that. We are seeking to be consistent with five years both for this Parliament and for subsequent Parliaments. Therefore, he cannot hold that argument against the Government.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: So if this House decided that it should be four years for subsequent Parliaments, the right course would be for the Government to say that it should be four years for this Parliament as well?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: I have made the point that it is not the Government who are proposing four years for subsequent Parliaments; we are proposing five years. I indicated that if we had proposed five years for this Parliament and four years subsequently, that would have been the subject of legitimate criticism. But that is not what we propose-we propose a consistency of five years. I will come on to argue why we believe that five years is right for subsequent Parliaments as well.
Baroness Jay of Paddington: I understand the noble and learned Lord's point. However, as I tried to ask on previous occasions, does he take the point that a five-year term for this Parliament and this Government could have been achieved in a way that did not involve this Bill?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: Clearly the Government could have continued for five years, but the point is that the Government are seeking to introduce the principle of fixed-term Parliaments. In wishing to introduce that principle, we believe that it should apply to this Parliament as well. It is not just the length of time; it also involves the trigger mechanisms for an election other than at the end of the five years. In terms of consistency, we are saying that what is right for the future-and we are self-evidently legislating for the future-is something that this Parliament should equally be obliged to have regard to and, indeed, to be bound by. I hope that I can make some progress.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, surely the point is that this Government could have determined and announced that they were going to last for five years. They could then have produced legislation for the future, were that their wish, on which there could have been pre-legislative scrutiny-which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, believes, and I share his view, we would all have been the beneficiaries of. So why on earth are we doing this Bill now, dealing with the future?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: The answer is the same as I gave a moment ago to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay-we believe there should be fixed-term Parliaments for the future and that this Parliament should be subject to the same rules, including of course the rules that would trigger an early election. Of course, there is no guarantee that either of the coalition parties will be in power after 2015 and that is why we reject the case that this is somehow our own self-interested political fix. We believe that this ought to be implemented for future Governments, including ones where we may not be in power. It was very interesting that when my noble friend Lord Rennard challenged the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, as to whether, when this Bill is enacted with the five years as proposed, a future Labour Government would amend it to four, he was not able to give a definitive answer that they would.
However, it must be recognised, too, that even under fixed terms, Parliaments come under pressure, both in their earlier and in their later years. We have had a number of speeches to that effect. At the beginning
10 May 2011 : Column 806
Moving to the final year of a term of office, my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry indicated that in his experience five years was right, given all the pressures that were on a Government, in order to get a legislative programme through. There are real advantages, therefore, to five years. I regret that what we have been asked to do in some respects with four years is to fit a quart into a pint pot, with a squeeze at both ends. At the other end of the term, the predictability of the election date may limit some of the hurly-burly of anticipation that up until now has inevitably attended the speculation as to when an election will be called. However, at Second Reading the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, albeit opposing the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, made it clear that if there were to be a fixed-term Parliament, he thought that a four-year term would not leave enough room for sensible policy-making and a good parliamentary debate before a forthcoming election began to cast what he described as its distorting shadow.
The noble Lord's concern was that if we had a four-year term, it would start to disrupt the parliamentary business as we approach the end of three years. The noble Lord, Lord Butler-who is in his place, and I hope I am not misrepresenting him-has also expressed strong reservations about the principle of fixed terms, and indicated that his experience also lends him to the view that five years would be more effective than four. That experience was shared by my noble friend Lady Stowell, when she was in government as an official.
Clearly, if we have four years, it shrinks the time available to Governments to deliver their programme; especially if we are going to have even more pre-legislative scrutiny. Some of the arguments against five years insist that precedent in our own system favours a four-year term. In fact, if we exclude the elections since the war that took place after less than two years, the average, I think, is between four and a quarter and four and a half years. The fact of the matter is that elections that are called at the end of four years are often examples of the Prime Minister of the day seeking to give his or her party a political advantage. It was not that they thought four years was the appropriate length of time, or that the term had come to its natural break, but that it was a judgment for them-as my noble friend Lord Dobbs indicated-as to when they thought they could win. If they thought they could, that was when they went. Indeed, on the second day in Committee, my noble friend Lord Dobbs said:
"I am afraid that these decisions have nothing to do with the astrological significance of the figures four or five. It has simply been a matter of self-preservation".-[Official Report, 21/3/11; col. 495.]
I think that when an election has been held after four years, it has been because it has been more electorally convenient for the party in power than for any great reasons of measuring accountability or suiting the political biorhythm-a view that I think is shared by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. In holding up this practice as a standard for fixed terms, the advocates of four years are arguing strongly for the very enemy that the Bill is seeking to combat-that of political expediency triumphing over the national interest, with parties holding an election after four years when they see it as expedient to do so. We are trying to take that power out of the hands of the Prime Minister and give it to Parliament. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, said at Second Reading, for that reason this is a "collector's item" of a Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, clearly wishes to intervene.
Lord Morgan: Is that not a totally false distinction? Do not a Government necessarily equate their party interest with the national interest? Is that not precisely what the Liberal Democrats have done by serving in this Government?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I am not sure that last Thursday would necessarily have been thought to be in my party's interest. I shall not rehearse all the arguments for the coalition but we heard the comments of my noble friend Lord Dobbs, who has been there when some of these decisions have been taken. As he indicated, the question has been: can we win? No doubt all parties think that they are right for the country but clearly the decision is taken for partisan reasons-when they think they can win. If one looks at 1983 and 1987, it is interesting that Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, did not hold an election exactly after four years-or at least she did in 1987-but she made the decision in 1983 after the local election results had come through. If I recall correctly, that was when I was first elected. The Dissolution took place the week after the local government election results in the first week in May, when she quite clearly saw that that would be to her party's advantage.
It is also suggested that Parliaments that have gone to five years have been destabilising-I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, used the expression "an awful fifth year"-but in many respects the term has been self-selecting, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra indicated. There have been fifth years under Governments who did not have the confidence to go to the country after four years because they did not think that they could win, having run out of steam and lost their way. No doubt they thought that if they carried on for a final year something might just turn up. That is not a very good argument for saying that five years would not work. I shall pay a passing compliment to the Government of whom the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was a member. I suspect that if the Government elected in 1997 had gone into a fifth year, that year would still have been very purposeful. The noble and learned Lord shakes his head but I think that he may be doing a disservice to his party.
As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, it is also interesting that when the Government gave the devolved Parliament in Scotland and the Assembly in
10 May 2011 : Column 808
The question that has been raised, not least by the noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Pannick, is: how do we ensure accountability? Accountability can come in many ways. It is not just in parliamentary general elections that parties and politicians are accountable. My noble friend Lady Stowell talked about some of the ideas that came out in the Power inquiry to try to engage ordinary people in the political process. The point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in what I thought was a very thoughtful contribution, that five years is very often required for an assessment to be made of the effectiveness of a Government's early policies and for people to make a proper and informed decision after there has been an opportunity for those policies to feed through.
Lord Wills: I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his espousal of these methods of public engagement. I, too, was pleased to hear that espousal from his noble friend Lady Stowell. Can he explain to the House why they have not taken advantage of one of these methods of public engagement to ask the public what they think about this measure?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, in the Constitution Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, asked my honourable friend Mr Mark Harper about opinion polls which showed public support for establishing fixed terms. These are not old opinion polls: the Populus survey conducted for the Times, published on 30 May 2009, found that 74 per cent of those surveyed supported the establishment of fixed terms; a poll conducted by ICM Research for the Sunday Telegraph, published on 26 May 2010, found that 63 per cent of those surveyed supported the establishment of fixed terms; and a survey by the Scottish Youth Parliament conducted in August 2010 found that 76.4 per cent of the young people surveyed were in favour of establishing a fixed term for the United Kingdom Parliament. I accept that the question as to whether it should be four or five years was not put, but there was clearly in the surveys support for the principle of fixed-term Parliaments.
My noble friend Lord Dobbs talked about the opportunity for policies to mature and to be assessed. Therefore, there is an opportunity for accountability because the electorate can see what has been delivered, not only by this Government in the present Parliament, where it may take some time for the necessary remedial measures to work through, but by other Parliaments. It is possible for a Government coming into office at the beginning of five years to plan their legislative programme and the other things that do not require legislation, and at the end of which the public can
10 May 2011 : Column 809
Practical issues were raised by a number of noble Lords, not least by my noble friends Lord Renton and Lord Blencathra. The questions of stability, practicality and allowing for accountability point to five years.
Lord Bach: Something is troubling me. If the noble and learned Lord has all these strong arguments against four years rather than five, why was it that his party went into the 2010 general election supporting a fixed-term Parliament of four years? What changed? When did the noble and learned Lord change his mind?
Lord Bach: Is the noble and learned Lord really suggesting that the Liberal Democrat party was in favour of five-year fixed Parliaments at the time of the general election of 2010? We know about the Private Member's Bill that was supported by many of those who are now prominent in Government. Liberal Democrat policy has always been four years. Why has it changed so suddenly?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: What the noble Lord claimed was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto was inaccurate. I am not shying away from the fact that four years had been Liberal Democrat policy, but everyone knows that you have to have negotiations if you want to get the outcome of a fixed-term Parliament, and that was the negotiation. I have listened to the argument and, heaven forfend, I am persuaded by it. The arguments that have been made for five years are very compelling indeed.
On the point made by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, although there has been a great deal of opinion in favour of four years, we have heard in today's debate-and from the noble Lords, Lord Armstrong and Lord Butler, in Committee-that the evidence points in favour of five years. I urge the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Goldsmith: The Minister confirmed a moment ago-I am grateful to him-when he spoke about opinions that none of the three surveys asked the people what they thought about the precise length of term. Can he say why it is-he did not address this in his remarks-that the experts, I think without exception but certainly the vast bulk of them, who came to the Select Committee spoke in favour of four not five years, and none of them supported five? Why is that?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I am not here to speak on behalf of these experts. In my closing remarks, I picked up the point made by my noble friend Lord Blencathra that there has been a lot of opinion on this from people who have had experience, including former Cabinet Secretaries and Chief Whips as well as those in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly who favoured five years when given the opportunity to do so. Some of them have indicated that they would quite like five years to be put on a more permanent footing. The evidence suggests that they have had practice and five years is what they have concluded is probably the right period of time. So again I invite the noble and learned Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, it has been a good and a very important debate. If what the noble and learned Lord says is right about trying to engage the public more in politics and if the Deputy Prime Minister is right when he says, describing the suite of Bills, that,
surely the minimum that this Government should do is to respond to Parliament's independent view about these issues, not put on a party-political basis. Both Select Committees, which contain a majority of people from the coalition, said that five years was wrong and that four years was right. If this Government are going to demonstrate their sincerity about new politics, should they not abandon simply doing things on the basis of what their own whipped majority wants and listen to what Parliament says? Parliament has said on an independent basis that four years and not five years is right. If the Government do not listen to that, I have to say that it puts in doubt their repeated statement, in particular through their Deputy Prime Minister, that they want to give more power to the legislature.
I shall not repeat the arguments in support of four years. For my own part, the independent evidence supports it very strongly. The only point that I shall refer to is the one made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, that you could have five years for this Parliament and four for the next. Myself and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, are in agreement on the principled position in relation to that. If it is to be four or five years for the future, it should be the same for this Parliament, because this Bill introduces fetters and difficulties in having an election before the end. So I agree with the Government when they say that it should be the same now as for the future.
For all the reasons given, in my respectful submission the right answer is four years. Sadly, I shall not accept the invitation of the noble and learned Lord, tempting as it is. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|