CHAPTER 1: Introduction
1. The Constitution Committee is appointed "to
examine the constitutional implications of all public Bills coming
before the House; and to keep under review the operation of the
constitution." In carrying out the former function, we endeavour
to identify questions of principle that arise from proposed legislation
and which affect a principal part of the constitution.
2. In this report we consider the Fixed-term
Parliaments Bill. The Bill would remove the Prime Minister's power
to call an election at the time of his choosing, and sets a five
year fixed term, subject to the possibility of early dissolution
following a vote by the House of Commons. The Bill is of clear
constitutional importance. We have therefore carried out enhanced
scrutiny of the Bill by conducting a full inquiry into the policy
and provisions contained in the Bill.
3. We launched this inquiry on 15 July 2010,
shortly before the introduction of the Bill into the House of
Commons, with the intention of producing a report in time for
its second reading in the House of Lords. The Bill received its
second reading in the Commons on 13 September. At the time of
publication of this report, the Bill was awaiting report and remaining
stages in the House of Commons.
4. We have heard oral evidence from seven witnesses
and received written submissions from a further 41 witnesses.
Our witnesses included the Minister for Political and Constitutional
Reform, Mark Harper MP, academic experts, campaigners, and international
legislatures and academics to all of whom we are grateful. We
have also taken account of the evidence given to us by the Deputy
Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, and by constitutional
experts which we published in our 5th report, The Government's
Constitutional Reform Programme.
5. We have been assisted in this inquiry by the
Committee's Legal Advisers, Professor Adam Tomkins, University
of Glasgow, and Professor Richard Rawlings, University College
London. We are grateful for their assistance.
The provisions of the Fixed-term
6. The Bill as introduced included the following
· the next general election to be held on
7 May 2015;
· subsequent general elections to take place
on the first Thursday in May at five year intervals;
· a safety valve provision for an early
election to take place in the event of the Speaker of the House
of Commons certifying that a number of MPs equivalent to, or more
than, two-thirds of the total number of seats have voted in favour;
· a second safety valve provision for an
early election to take place in the event of the Speaker certifying
(a) that the Commons has passed a motion of no confidence in the
government, and (b) that 14 days have passed without the House
passing any motion expressing confidence in any government of
· a provision that Parliament cannot otherwise
The scope of this report
7. In this report we examine the key issues of
the principle of fixed-term Parliaments, the length of the fixed
term and the provisions enabling early general elections to be
held. We also consider the process by which the Bill was brought
8. We received little or no evidence on a number
of other issues raised by the Bill's provisions. We therefore
make no further comment on the following:
· the choice of the first Thursday in May
as the appropriate day and time of year for holding general elections;
· orders enabling the date of an ordinary
general election to be brought forward or delayed by up to two
· the length of time between dissolution
and the polling date;
· the restriction on the designation of
public holidays and days of mourning being used to affect the
date of dissolution;
· the summoning of a new Parliament.
The history of the fixed-term
9. The system by which Parliaments are dissolved
and general elections held has remained largely unchanged for
nearly a century. The current five year maximum term was introduced
by the Parliament Act 1911. The Act did not affect the Crown's
prerogative to dissolve Parliament. This equates to a prime ministerial
power to call an election broadly at a time of his or her choosing.
A former Chairman of this Committee compared this arrangement
to "a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach
it with his running shoes in one hand and his starting pistol
in the other".
In other words, the Prime Minister's power may give the governing
party a significant advantage over opposition parties, particularly
in terms of the organisation of an election campaign. One way
of reducing this advantage, it has been suggested, is to introduce
a system of fixed-term Parliaments.
10. In recent times, there has been little public
discussion of fixed-term Parliaments, though the issue has been
on the constitutional reform agenda for the last twenty years.
In 1991 the Institute for Public Policy Research argued that four
year fixed terms should form one element of a written constitution.
The Labour Party's 1992 manifesto called for fixed-term Parliaments
to be introduced.
11. Whilst their 1997 manifesto contained no
commitment to fixed-term Parliaments for Westminster, the newly
elected Labour Government did introduce fixed four year terms
for the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland. Private members' bills providing for fixed parliamentary
terms at Westminster were brought forward in 2001 by Labour MP
and former Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, Tony
Wright, and in 2008
by Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth;
though neither Bill progressed beyond a second reading debate.
The Liberal Democrat policy in favour of four year fixed terms
was set out in the policy papers Real Democracy for Britain
(2007) and For
the People, By the People (2007).
12. In 2007, the then Prime Minister, Gordon
Brown, announced a proposal to require the Prime Minister to seek
the approval of the House of Commons before asking the Queen for
a dissolution. This
would have been another method of addressing the fact that the
Prime Minister can choose the election date. The proposal went
The development of this Bill
13. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats made
commitments in their 2010 manifestos to legislate to introduce
fixed-term Parliaments, though neither specified a length of term.
The Conservative manifesto made no commitment to their introduction.
The May 2010 election resulted in a hung Parliament. In the coalition
negotiations that followed, fixed-term Parliaments quickly emerged
as one element of the constitutional reform agenda. The resulting
coalition programme for government included the following commitment:
"We will establish five-year fixed-term
Parliaments. We will put a binding motion before the House of
Commons stating that the next general election will be held on
the first Thursday of May 2015. Following this motion, we will
legislate to make provision for fixed-term Parliaments of five
years. This legislation will also provide for dissolution if 55%
or more of the House votes in favour."
14. The Government subsequently announced that
the binding motion proposal had been dropped and the Fixed-term
Parliaments Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 22
The Bill and the Government's
aims for constitutional reform
15. The Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is just one
part of a package of proposed reforms intended by the Government
to make the political system "far more transparent and accountable."
In his evidence, the Deputy Prime Minister told us that: "it
is an unambiguous judgment on our part that reducing the power
of the executive, seeking to boost the power of the legislature,
making the legislatures more accountable to people ... collectively
introduces the mechanisms by which people can exercise greater
control over politicians."
More recently, the Deputy Prime Minister has argued that "People
expect to be given clear and transparent choices."
16. Throughout this report we consider whether
the Government have met these aims in introducing the Fixed-term
Parliaments Bill. Although the principle of fixed terms reduces
the power of the executive in one respect,
we discuss in Chapter Four various concerns over the drafting
of clause 2 which mean that the executive's power to determine
when elections should be called would not be entirely reduced.
Moreover, it is arguable that the Bill makes it less clear when
and how that power may be exercised. We stress in Chapter Three
that the Bill would lead to less frequent general elections; this
would make the legislature less accountable, not more.
In Chapter Five we examine the lack of time given by the Government
to development of its policies and the Bill's detailed provisions.
17. The policy behind the Bill shows little sign
of being developed with constitutional principles in mind. A prime
example of this is the Government's decision to legislate for
five year fixed terms, which we discuss in detail in Chapter Three.
 There is a
legitimate debate to be had about the length of the Parliamentary
term. However, it is important to recognise the distinction between
"the immediate concern of the Government that it should continue
for five years" and "the long-term issue of fixed-term
the former is possible under the current constitutional arrangements;
the latter constitutes a significant constitutional change.
18. The Minister for Political and Constitutional
Reform told us that the proposed binding motion could have placed
the Crown in a difficult position if any request for early dissolution
were subsequently made, and that it was therefore judged more
appropriate to introduce legislation at an early stage.
He added that "the House of Commons has effectively now said
that in principle it supports fixed-term Parliaments, and the
view is that that has already constrained the ability of the Prime
Minister to seek an early dissolution if he was so minded."
19. The speed with which the policy was introduced,
with no significant consultation, no green paper and no detailed
assessment of the pros and cons of a five year term over a four
year term, suggests that short-term considerations were the drivers
behind the Bill's introduction. The Hansard Society argued that
"political expediency appears to have taken priority over
Parliament's right to properly scrutinise the executive."
Democratic Audit stressed that "this change is yet another
piecemeal alteration, implemented with insufficient consultation,
to the UK constitution".
20. We take the view that the origins and
content of this Bill owe more to short-term considerations than
to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or
sustained public demand. 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.
1 References in this report to the Bill or Explanatory
Notes are references to the Bill as introduced in the House of
Commons: 2010-11 Bill 64. Back
Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011): The Government's
Constitutional Reform Programme (HL Paper 43). Back
Clause 1(3). Back
Clause 1(5). Back
Clause 3(1). Back
Clause 3(6). Back
Clauses 3(4) and 4(2). Back
For more information see Constitution Unit, Fixed Term Parliaments,
August 2010, ch 6 (also included in Political and Constitutional
Reform Committee, 2nd Report (2010-2011): Fixed-term Parliaments
Bill (HC Paper 436), Ev 43). Back
Lord Holme of Cheltenham, HL Deb 22 May 1991 col 245. Back
The Constitution of the United Kingdom, September 1991. Back
It's time to get Britain working again, Labour Party manifesto
Fixed-term Parliaments, Bill 54 (2001-2002); see also HC Deb 7
May 2002 col 46. Back
Fixed Term Parliaments, Bill 30 (2007-2008). Back
The Liberal Democrats, Real Democracy for Britain: 20 proposals
to strengthen British democracy, July 2007. Back
The Liberal Democrats, For the People, By the People, September
2007, para 3.1.8. Back
The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170 (2007), paras 34-36. Back
HM Government, The Coalition: Our programme for government, p 26. Back
Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011), op. cit.
Q 55. Back
The Deputy Prime Minister, Political Studies Association/Hansard
Society Annual Lecture, 16 November 2010. Back
See Chapter Two, paras 26 and 46. Back
See, especially, paras 115-119. Back
See Chapter Three, paras 49 and 62. Back
See, especially, paras 164-167. Back
See Chapter 4. Back
Q 3. Back
Q 117. Back
FTP 16. Back
FTP 10. Back