A Question of Confidence? The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 Contents

Chapter 5: Future of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

Impact of the Act on the constitution

145.If the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had operated during years of comfortable single-party government majorities its practical impact may have been negligible. However, with governments operating with a small or no majority attempting to deliver the biggest political and constitutional reshaping of the United Kingdom for decades, the FTPA had a considerably greater effect.

146.Some witnesses thought that the Act had damaged the constitution.125 Robert Craig argued:

“the Act is antithetical to a long tradition of responsible government as it rebalances the constitution significantly in favour of the Commons at the expense of the executive that has its own legitimate democratic mandate through its manifesto put forward by an executive slate. The main justification for the Act appears to reside in an erroneous view that the political power to call an election is inappropriate in a political constitution. The current difficulties surrounding the Brexit process have been exacerbated by the Act in unhelpful ways.”126

147.In contrast, Professor Gavin Philipson said the Act: “has made an extremely positive change to the constitution. Dissolution is one of those old royal powers that I have described as the bones poking through the democratic veneer of our constitution. The Executive ought not to have the power to simply dismiss the legislature.”127

148.Professor Robert Hazell said:

“There is a risk of making the Fixed-term Parliaments Act a whipping boy for aspects of the extraordinary situation we are in, which … is really more down to the fact that we have a minority Government, that Brexit is such an extraordinarily bitter and divisive issue and that there is a very serious breakdown in party discipline, not just in the governing party but in other parties in the House of Commons.”128

149.The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was not the cause of the political deadlock in the 2017–19 parliament, but without the Act the deadlock would not have lasted as long.

Next steps for the Act

150.Section 7 of the FTPA requires the Prime Minister to make arrangements for a committee to review its operation. Such arrangements must be made between 1 June and 30 November 2020. In this section we consider the options the Government will need to address if it wishes to amend the Act.

151.Lord Norton of Louth suggested there were four approaches to the FTPA: “retain, repeal, rejig and replace.”129 Given the issues with the Act identified in this report, and the stated aim of the Government, retaining the FTPA in its current form is not an option.

152.A straight repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is not feasible. The Act repealed the Septennial Act 1715, which set the maximum length of a parliament. Repealing the FTPA without any replacement would mean that the current parliament could never end. This leaves “rejig”—amending the Act to improve it—or replacing it with a new statute. As the practical effect of these two options is largely the same, it is not necessary to distinguish between them further.

Questions to be addressed

153.As we have set out in this report, to determine the future of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 a series of linked questions must be answered. These are:

These questions are ultimately ones that Parliament must determine.

154.In making those determinations, Parliament may also wish to consider the separate question of whether it should be asked to approve the prorogation of Parliament.

155.In making these decisions, parliamentarians must be mindful that constitutional change should not be undertaken lightly or with the short term in mind. Constitutional change needs to be able to stand the test of time.

156.These questions will not go unanswered for long, as the Government is required to appoint a committee to review the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 under the terms of section 7 of the Act before 30 November 2020.

125 See, for example, Q 29 (Carl Gardner)

126 Written evidence from Robert Craig, London School of Economics (FPA0013)

127 Q 29 (Professor Gavin Phillipson)

128 Q 9 (Professor Robert Hazell)

129 Q 8 (Lord Norton of Louth)

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