Fixed-term Parliaments Bill - Constitution Committee Contents

CHAPTER 3: The length of the parliamentary term and election timing

Five year terms

47.  Aside from the principle itself, arguably the most significant constitutional provision in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is the length of the term. Clause 1(3) of the Bill provides for fixed terms of five years.

48.  This provision reflects the maximum term currently permissible under the Septennial Act 1715, as amended by the Parliament Act 1911. In introducing the 1911 Act, the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, told the House of Commons:

    "We propose to shorten the legal duration of Parliament from seven years to five years, which will probably amount in practice to an actual legislative working term of four years. That will secure that your House of Commons for the time being, is always either fresh from the polls which gave it authority, or—and this is an equally effective check upon acting in defiance of the popular will—it is looking forward to the polls at which it will have to render an account of its stewardship."[72]

49.  Asquith's expectation of four year parliamentary terms has been broadly borne out. There have been 18 post-war general elections, and the average length of time between general elections since 1945 is three years and ten months.[73] Had all Parliaments since 1945 lasted the full five year term, four fewer elections would have been held. Having said that, there have been three particularly short post-war Parliaments: 1950-51, 1964-66 and 1974. Parliamentary terms have been more uniform in length since 1979, principally because Governments since then have, more often than not, been returned with large overall majorities. Of the seven Parliaments since May 1979, four have lasted for roughly four years and three for roughly five years.


Length of time between general elections post 1945[74]
4.6 yrs
4.6 yrs
1.7 yrs
4.1 yrs
3.6 yrs
4.0 yrs
4.4 yrs
4.8 yrs
5.0 yrs
5.1 yrs
1.5 yrs
4.1 yrs
4.2 yrs
3.9 yrs
3.7 yrs
5.0 yrs
0.6 yrs


50.  The Deputy Prime Minister set out the Government's case for a five year term:

    "It is ... a length of time ... with which people are familiar ... [and] there is a pattern of five year Parliaments, at least recently ... Given the tendency for governments to be somewhat hamstrung and paralysed for a considerable period before a general election is held ... you are in practice talking about a government that can get on and do difficult things ... for about four years ... That provides a degree of stability and transparency to the political system which outweighs the self-evident fact that if you did that over a period of time, people would be voting less frequently ... I think that is a reasonable balance to strike. If one goes to four years, one is talking about a three-year period in which governments are not blighted by their own sense of mortality ... That strikes me as a rather short period. For all of those factors, we have tended to settle on five years."[75]

51.  Dr Gary Levy, former Professor of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario and Ottawa University, submitted the only evidence which unambiguously backed the Government's case for a longer term. He observed that opinion polls suggest that voters "abhor elections", and that constant electioneering would mean it would not be possible to keep pace with China and other developing countries where elections "do not consume the time, energy, money and political capital of the western style elections that we hold so dear."[76] David Howarth, a former MP whose own private member's bill had set out a term of four years, saw "no obviously dispositive method for deciding between the two proposals ... fairness points more to four years, stability to five."[77]


52.  The vast majority of witnesses who commented on the question advocated a shorter, four year term. Many did so in forceful terms[78] raising a number of specific objections to the Government's proposals.

53.  Several witnesses argued that it was wrong in principle to reduce the frequency with which elections are held. The Hansard Society stressed the distinction between five years as an absolute maximum and five years as the norm;[79] Professor Dawn Oliver, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, University College London, thought that the cumulative effect of successive terms would amount to a democratic deficit;[80] and Democratic Audit expressed alarm that a five year term would present "a reversal of a long struggle for more accountable government."[81]

54.  A five year term does not reflect devolved and international experience. Appendix 3 shows the variety of experience in terms of the length of a term in international democratic institutions. Four years, whilst not universal, is clearly the norm.[82] Moreover, where fixed terms have been introduced or altered in recent years, legislatures have invariably opted for four year terms.[83]

55.  Four years has also been the default option in terms of recent debate in the UK.[84] The devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all operate according to four year fixed terms. Recent private members' bills have proposed four year terms.[85] Liberal Democrat policy papers in 2007 were explicitly in favour of four year fixed terms.[86]

56.  Professor Milner told us that "there seems to be a kind of natural rhythm around four years in other elections that the citizen might be participating in, such as municipal elections, Scottish elections and American elections if we are following them. The four year term is ... culturally established, even in Britain".[87] Professor Bradley argued that a four year term would be more consistent with voters' expectations.[88]

57.  As we note in Chapter Five, there has been a lack of public debate on this issue. Professor Bradley told us that "if one is making the fundamental switch from the present situation to fixed-term Parliaments, then one needs a full debate on what the period should be."[89] When asked whether there should have been consultation on this point, the Deputy Prime Minister questioned whether "people are straining at the bit to vote in elections more frequently ... I have never met anyone who says to me, 'Well, I kind of like voting every four years.'"[90] This does not reflect the Government's stated view that the legislature should be made more accountable to the people.[91]

58.  Democratic Audit dismissed the Government's reasoning, alleging that five years "seems to have been arrived at on a basis of the political calculations of the two parties involved in the Coalition ... It would be regrettable if short-term political calculations were ... to have a long-term negative impact upon political accountability in the UK."[92]


59.  Of all the issues arising from the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, the proposal for a five year fixed term has created the most unease. Despite the Government's arguments in favour of a five year term, the consensus emerging from the evidence is that this is too long, and that a four year term would be preferable. The Government's central argument is that a five year term is necessary in order to allow an administration to govern effectively. This is an important consideration, yet it must not be viewed in isolation. The need to deliver effective government must be balanced against the need to maintain democratic accountability.

60.  The evidence we received did not support a term shorter than four or longer than five years. Neither do we believe that such a term would be appropriate. The question therefore is whether a four or five year term would provide the most appropriate balance between effective government and democratic accountability. The difference between a five year maximum and a five year norm should not be understated—the cumulative effect on democratic accountability of successive five year terms would be considerable.

61.  The length of previous parliamentary terms in the UK has depended on a number of factors, including the popularity or success of each particular government.[93] There has, however, been no fixed-term principle under which governments would normally last for the full five year term. It is therefore not possible to judge from the UK experience whether governments required to last for five years would be any less popular or successful than they would otherwise have been.

62.  Whilst acknowledging the case made by the Deputy Prime Minister for a five year term, nonetheless the majority of the Committee consider that a four year term should be adopted for any fixed-term parliamentary arrangement at Westminster. In the view of the majority, the shift from a five year maximum to a five year norm would be inconsistent with the Government's stated aim of making the legislature more accountable, inconsistent with existing constitutional practice and inconsistent with the practice of the devolved institutions and the clear majority of international legislatures.

63.  Any change in the general election cycle is of the utmost constitutional significance. The strong views that witnesses have expressed on this question demonstrate the need to consult on and debate fully and openly the relative benefits and drawbacks of different term lengths. The Government have failed to do this. We consider these process issues further in Chapter Five.

Resetting the clock

64.  We discuss in Chapter Four the ways in which Parliament may be dissolved early. One significant issue which has arisen from this is the question of the length of the ensuing term. There are two basic options: allowing any subsequent Parliament to last for a new full term (resetting the clock) or keeping the set election date so that the subsequent Parliament would only last for a part term.

65.  Professor Bradley stressed that if you reset the clock:

    "you will not have made a real psychological change to your constitutional arrangements to the fixed-term system, because in the minds of major parties there will always be the view that if we do have an election now, will this give us what at the moment we would like, which is a four or five year period in office? That goes against what should be the spirit of a fixed-term system."[94]

66.  This issue must be examined in the context of the Bill's provision of a five year term. Were an early election to take place, the newly elected government could have a full five years in which to govern, creating a strong incentive to bring about an early election. The shorter the maximum term, the weaker that incentive. Professor Milner and Stephen Padgett, Professor of Government, University of Strathclyde, agreed that the shorter the term, the better the argument for resetting the clock.[95]

67.  Professor Milner also noted that it is possible to agree to reset the clock in some circumstances, but not in others. He told us that:

    "Working on the premise that it would be four years, I would argue that the principle [of resetting the clock] is not wrong. I could imagine a compromise that said that if the dissolution was in the first two years of Parliament, the original date should be maintained, but if it was in the second two years of Parliament, the election should be four years from that date."[96]

68.  Clause 1(3) of the Bill provides for the clock to be reset. However, ordinary elections must always be held on the first Thursday in May, therefore this provision is modified by clause 1(4) which prevents any subsequent Parliament lasting for more than five years. So, for example, the next ordinary election should take place on 7 May 2015. If this Parliament were dissolved early in October 2013, the next Parliament would last until May 2018: a term of four and a half years. This prevents an early election held at a less convenient time of year (for example, close to Christmas) resulting in all subsequent elections having to be held at that time of year. It should be noted that these provisions could result in a subsequent term of just over four years.

69.  The Government justified their decision to reset the clock on the ground that "the public would think it odd if you were to have an early election and the public were to make a clear decision about a government—perhaps returning it with a good majority—and a very short time afterwards, you were to ask the public to go back and vote all over again."[97]

70.  The Government also stated, in their response to the report of the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on this Bill,[98] that: "The people expect that when they go to the polls, they are being asked to elect a government which will last for a full term with a full programme. The proposals in the Bill will provide certainty as to the length of a Parliament and minimise the possibility of multiple elections happening in quick succession."[99]

71.  These arguments are not conclusive. Firstly, what the people might expect under a fixed-term arrangement would be dependent on the provisions of the relevant legislation. Secondly, any Parliament which lasted only until a set election date would have a definite length. Indeed, the length of the parliamentary term might be more certain since it would be less likely that a Parliament with a shorter time left to run would itself be dissolved early. Thirdly, it can be questioned just how likely multiple elections in quick succession would be. It is possible to modify arrangements so that a newly elected government does not have to return to the polls within a short period of, say, six months or a year. Consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny would have provided the opportunity for such arrangements to be properly considered.

72.  It is also the case that the clock is not reset in the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.[100] Although the Scottish and Welsh legislatures have been in existence only since 1999, it is notable that they have produced both minority and coalition governments and that no early elections have yet been held.

73.  Many of our witnesses were equivocal about this issue. Some argued that whilst only allowing the remainder of the term would act as a disincentive to abuse of the early dissolution provisions by an existing government, a different government elected with a fresh mandate should be allowed a full term.[101] The Government acknowledged that the arguments were balanced and that it was, in the end, "a judgment issue".[102]

74.  We agree that there is a case to be made for resetting the clock. Whatever the maximum term, we accept that an elected government should have a full term in which to develop their policies and take their legislative programme through Parliament.

Election timing—the devolved institutions

75.  Five year terms would create a clash with elections to the devolved institutions in May 2015 and every 20 years thereafter.[103] There was a widespread view that such a clash was undesirable.[104] Professor Padgett pointed to the dangers of a clash when he told us that in Germany, "Where state elections have coincided with the federal election, the federal election's issues and campaigns have totally engulfed the regional campaign."[105]

76.  Once again, concerns were raised about the process by which the Government's proposals were announced, and in particular about the lack of consultation with the devolved institutions.[106] The Deputy Prime Minister told us that he had met the leaders of the devolved administrations and the Presiding Officers in two of the devolved legislatures. He conceded that:

    "there is undoubtedly some potential for overlap and some degree of confusion if one has two elections for legislatures on the same day. We are consulting people and trying to see whether there are workable or desirable alternatives ... whether people think that the issue is big enough that we need to take remedial action."[107]

77.  This issue may not be resolvable in the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. The Government have pointed out that if the Bill provided for a four year term, an early dissolution which resulted in a clash could lead to a clash occurring every four years thereafter.[108] Only by providing for fully fixed four year terms, with the next Parliament due to commence in 2013, could a more satisfactory permanent cycle of biennial UK and devolved elections be established. The arguments we set out in the next chapter in favour of early dissolution arrangements mean that such an arrangement would not be acceptable. A different solution is therefore required.

78.  A number of potential solutions were suggested to us, including allowing the UK Parliament to continue only until October 2014,[109] moving Westminster elections to take place just before or after the devolved elections,[110] or giving the Scottish Parliament the power to set its own election dates.[111]

79.  The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform has announced that he is consulting the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly about bringing forward amendments enabling these legislatures to avoid a potential clash by varying the election date by six months either way if two-thirds of members vote in favour. In relation to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Government are proposing to wait until after the combined elections in May before deciding how to proceed.[112]

80.  A potential date clash with elections to the devolved institutions in May 2015 and every twenty years thereafter could occur if the Government's proposals are adopted. Ideally, this should be avoided in order to protect the integrity and separate identity of Westminster and devolved elections. We await the outcome of the Government's consultations with the devolved institutions, and stress the importance of ensuring that any proposed solution is broadly acceptable to all concerned.

81.  It is regrettable that the Government did not seek to engage with the devolved institutions in order to find a satisfactory solution to the consequences of their proposals before the Bill was introduced.

Sessional arrangements

82.  Traditionally, parliamentary sessions have begun and ended in the autumn, with the exception of years in which there is a spring general election. In these instances, it is usual for the first session to last approximately eighteen months until the following autumn, with the final session of a Parliament lasting around six months. The Government have announced that future parliamentary sessions will last from spring to spring in order to bring them into line with elections on a fixed date in May.[113]

83.  The Government have proposed the shift on the basis that it would form a common-sense corollary of their legislative proposals.[114] It should be noted, however, that this change is not a necessary corollary of the Bill's provisions: in recent times, the Queen's speech has been held in the autumn, despite elections being held in spring or summer.

84.  The Government also announced that the current session would last for two years until spring 2012. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform told us that:

    "given that the first session in a new Parliament is traditionally a longer one anyway ... we thought that on balance it was better to extend the current session and then align the State Opening and the new sessions with the new fixed-term cycle ... I do not see that it changes the balance between Parliament and the Executive at all."[115]

85.  Professor Bradley considered this to be "a rather remarkable situation. We are in an area of reworking a lot of aspects of the constitution that have been around for a long while ... to postpone [the State Opening] for a complete year is quite a major change."[116] He argued that it would strengthen the executive at the expense of Parliament, noting that "time and the need to get agreement by a certain date are a vital part of the power of the House of Lords."[117]

86.  Conversely, the Clerk of the Parliaments stated that:

    "the long session may strengthen the power of the House. Use of the Parliament Act procedure requires the bill concerned to be introduced in the following session. If that session is not to begin until April or May 2012 then the House has a significant power of delay in relation to a bill which otherwise would be expected to complete its passage in 2011."[118]

87.  The Government's proposal to extend the current session until spring 2012 may increase the power of the House of Lords to delay legislation but it also affords the Government more time to get its legislative programme through both Houses, thus potentially increasing the power of the executive in relation to Parliament. This appears to be inconsistent with the Government's stated aim of reducing the power of the executive.[119]

72   HC Deb 21 Feb 1911 col 1749. Back

73   Figure calculated from the general election on 5 July 1945 to the general election on 5 May 2010. There were 17 Parliaments during this period. Back

74   Source: HC Research Paper 10/54, Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, 26 August 2010 p 32. That paper also lists the lengths of the parliamentary terms as well as the time between elections (the latter is longer as it takes account of periods of dissolution). Only the latter are listed here since this reflects the Bill's provisions for a fixed election date.  Back

75   Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011), op. cit. Q 54; see also QQ 63-65. The Government emphasised their view during the Committee Stage debate in the Commons: HC Deb 16 November 2010 cols 837-841. Back

76   FTP 23. Back

77   FTP 19, summary and paras 5-7. Back

78   Q 7 (Professor Bradley); FTP 10, paras 11-18 (Democratic Audit); Q 50 (Professor Padgett). Back

79   FTP 16, para 7. Back

80   Q 7. Back

81   FTP 10, paras 11-18. Back

82   QQ 50, 52 (Professor Milner). See also Constitution Unit op. cit., Fig 4.1; FTP 10, Table 2 (Democratic Audit). Back

83   Including Sweden in 1994 and Canada in 2006. In addition, all Australian states and territories and Canadian provinces and territories that have introduced fixed terms in recent years now operate four year terms. Back

84   Q 87 (Dr Fox). Back

85   Fixed-term Parliaments, Bill 54 (2001-2002); Fixed Term Parliaments, Bill 30 (2007-2008). Back

86   The Liberal Democrats, Real Democracy for Britain op. cit.; For the People, By the People op. cit..  Back

87   Q 52. Back

88   QQ 7-8. See also FTP 31, para 6 (Richard Pond). Back

89   Q 7. Back

90   Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011), op. cit. Q 66. Back

91   See para 15. Back

92   FTP 10,para 17. Back

93   Q 8 (Professor Bradley); FTP 16, para 7 (Hansard Society); Constitution Unit, op. cit., para 4.1.  Back

94   Q 16 (Professor Oliver). See also Q 99 (Professor Bogdanor). Back

95   Q 56.  Back

96   Q 48. Back

97   Q 161 (Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform). Back

98   Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, 2nd Report (2010-2011) op. cit.Back

99   Government response to the report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, Cm 7951, November 2010, para 42. Back

100   It is reset for the Northern Ireland Assembly.  Back

101   Q 21 (Professor Oliver); Q 49 (Professor Padgett); Q 99 (Professor Bogdanor).  Back

102   Q 161 (Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform).  Back

103   On the assumption that the electoral cycle is not disrupted by early general elections. Back

104   QQ 13-14 (Professor Bradley and Professor Oliver); Q 90 (Dr Fox); FTP 32, para 2 (Mark Ryan).  Back

105   Q 59. Back

106   QQ 13-14 (Professor Bradley and Professor Oliver); Q 90 (Dr Fox); FTP 32, para 2 (Mark Ryan). Back

107   Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011), op. cit. Q 63; see also Q 64. Back

108   HC Deb 16 November 2010 col 844. Back

109   Constitution Committee, 5th report (2010-2011), op. cit. Q 13 (Professor Hazell); see also Constitution Unit, op. cit., para 4.2. Back

110   FTP 32, para 13 (Mark Ryan).  Back

111   Q 90 (Dr Fox citing Professor John Curtice). This proposal could equally apply to the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly.  Back

112   HC Deb 16 November 2010 cols 841-845. Back

113   HC Deb 13 September 2010 cols 33-34WS.  Back

114   HC Deb 13 September 2010 cols 614-619. See also Q 135 (Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform).  Back

115   QQ 135-6. Back

116   Q 4.  Back

117   Q 6. Back

118   FTP 43, para 9.  Back

119   See above para 15. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010