Fixed-term Parliaments Bill - Constitution Committee Contents

Fixed-term Parliaments Bill

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.[1]

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.[2]

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 Parliaments Bill

6.  The Bill as introduced included the following main provisions:

·  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 Her Majesty;

·  a provision that Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved.

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 forward.

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;[3]

·  orders enabling the date of an ordinary general election to be brought forward or delayed by up to two months;[4]

·  the length of time between dissolution and the polling date;[5]

·  the restriction on the designation of public holidays and days of mourning being used to affect the date of dissolution;[6]

·  the summoning of a new Parliament.[7]

The history of the fixed-term Parliaments debate[8]

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".[9] 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.[10] The Labour Party's 1992 manifesto called for fixed-term Parliaments to be introduced.[11]

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,[12] and in 2008 by Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth;[13] 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)[14] and For the People, By the People (2007)[15].

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.[16] This would have been another method of addressing the fact that the Prime Minister can choose the election date. The proposal went no further.

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."[17]

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 July 2010.

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."[18] 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."[19] More recently, the Deputy Prime Minister has argued that "People expect to be given clear and transparent choices."[20]

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,[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] In Chapter Five we examine the lack of time given by the Government to development of its policies and the Bill's detailed provisions.[24]

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. [25] 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 Parliaments":[26] 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.[27] 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."[28]

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."[29] Democratic Audit stressed that "this change is yet another piecemeal alteration, implemented with insufficient consultation, to the UK constitution".[30]

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

2   Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011): The Government's Constitutional Reform Programme (HL Paper 43). Back

3   Clause 1(3).  Back

4   Clause 1(5).  Back

5   Clause 3(1).  Back

6   Clause 3(6). Back

7   Clauses 3(4) and 4(2). Back

8   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

9   Lord Holme of Cheltenham, HL Deb 22 May 1991 col 245. Back

10   The Constitution of the United Kingdom, September 1991.  Back

11   It's time to get Britain working again, Labour Party manifesto 1992. Back

12   Fixed-term Parliaments, Bill 54 (2001-2002); see also HC Deb 7 May 2002 col 46.  Back

13   Fixed Term Parliaments, Bill 30 (2007-2008). Back

14   The Liberal Democrats, Real Democracy for Britain: 20 proposals to strengthen British democracy, July 2007. Back

15   The Liberal Democrats, For the People, By the People, September 2007, para 3.1.8.  Back

16   The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170 (2007), paras 34-36. Back

17   HM Government, The Coalition: Our programme for government, p 26. Back

18   Ibid. Back

19   Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011), op. cit. Q 55. Back

20   The Deputy Prime Minister, Political Studies Association/Hansard Society Annual Lecture, 16 November 2010. Back

21   See Chapter Two, paras 26 and 46. Back

22   See, especially, paras 115-119. Back

23   See Chapter Three, paras 49 and 62. Back

24   See, especially, paras 164-167. Back

25   See Chapter 4.  Back

26   Q 3. Back

27   Q 117.  Back

28   Ibid.. Back

29   FTP 16. Back

30   FTP 10. Back

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