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Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I raised with you yesterday in a point of order the amount of time that the House would have to debate the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill when there was a possibility of there being one statement today. We have now had two statements that have taken an hour and 10 minutes out of our time. Members will, I think, find it particularly galling that one of those statements is the result of the leak on damages settlements, on which we have just heard the Justice Secretary report to the House. In these circumstances, Mr Speaker, what protection can Members be offered so that we have the opportunity properly to debate and discuss a major constitutional Bill that will change the way in which our democracy operates?
Mr Speaker: I have heard what the right hon. Gentleman has said and I fully understand the seriousness of his point. The short answer, however, is that these decisions-that is to say, decisions on the timing of Government business-are ultimately for others to make. Specifically, these matters are in the hands of the usual channels and, in particular, of the Government. The right hon. Gentleman might wish that it were otherwise, and many might agree with him, but that is the position as it stands. However, I simply say to him, as I was able to say to him yesterday, that his opposite number, the Leader of the House, is present. He will have heard what has been said and it is open to the Leader of the House to respond if he so wishes.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young):
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It
was not the practice of the previous Administration to add injury time when we debated constitutional Bills on the Floor of the House and it is not our habit either.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I want to raise a subject at the heart of public debate to do with the credibility of Parliament and the honesty of Members of Parliament. You will know that the Deputy Prime Minister has made numerous statements on the need for openness, transparency, probity and honesty with the electorate. Yesterday, I wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister asking for a copy of the paper on tuition fees written for him by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 16 March along with the paper by the Education Secretary on the same subject. Those papers are not Government publications but are public interest papers. Would you, Mr Speaker, be prepared to give the Library permission to hold those papers after I receive them?
Mr Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the right hon. Lady has said and I shall happily look into this matter for her and for the House. Ultimately, of course, the decision on which documents that are in the hands of members of the Government are published by the Government, including perhaps being put into the Library, is a matter for the Government. However, as I have said, I have heard what she has said, I shall look into it and I shall revert to her when I have done so.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to an employment retention assessment to determine entitlement to a period of rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes.
This is the fifth time that I have raised this subject in a ten-minute rule Bill, so if God loves a trier, he must adore me. I hesitate to add that I have seen off three Labour Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions; I hope that this coalition Secretary of State will be my first and last. Throughout my years of toil, it has become clear to me that there is firm consensus across the House that support should be provided to ensure that people who develop an impairment or become disabled can remain in work. The widespread support I have always received for this Bill is testament to the fact that the matter is not confined to the margins of society.
Every quarter, about 600,000 people become sick or develop an impairment as defined by the late Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Within a year of doing so, 13%, or 78,000 people, will have left work. Of those people, about 25,000 a year permanently leave employment owing to illness or disability and never return. That works out at more than a quarter of a million people since 1997, which more than cancels out the previous Government's creditable achievement of having helped 200,000 disabled people into work in the past decade and will no doubt hinder the current coalition.
We know that as a result of such barriers, a disabled person is nearly five times more likely to be out of work and claiming benefits than a non-disabled person. Crucially, once a disabled person is out of work they are far less likely to get back into employment. Behind these statistics lie people's lives, which often become unrecognisable as they suddenly have to come to terms with a permanent life-changing impairment while facing the prospect of losing their employment, their source of income and even, in some cases, their home.
I have made these points before and I will continue to do so until a Government address the problem. Last week, the Secretary of State outlined his new universal credit reform of the welfare system, which aims to move more people from benefits into employment, but today I find myself again making the point that we need to focus on retention if we are to stop people falling into the welfare trap in the first place. I welcome some of his welfare reforms, and if he truly intends to make a constructive effort to put more people into employment, I hope that he will consider me and my Bill as a help and not a hindrance.
I support the underlying principle of simplifying the benefits system and providing real incentives to work by creating a universal credit, but the universal lesson that the Government must take on board is that we will not get more people off benefits and into work if there is no work for them to go into. I agree that there should be real obligations, backed by sanctions, on people receiving
out-of-work benefits, but they should be matched by rights and guarantees to work. An approach that involves too much stick and not enough carrot will not work.
There are areas in which I am at odds with the Government. I find their plans to cut housing benefit by 10% for people who are out of work for 12 months, even if they have done everything possible to find a job, abhorrent. That is the wrong approach and, without going into more detail, is completely wrong, and not just on moral grounds. It will only add to the burdens of people who are already heavily laden with a disability, or are in rehabilitation, and will make it twice as hard for them to find a job.
Another issue on which I disagree with the Government is the cut in local housing allowance, which will mean that nearly all the claimants in my constituency in private rentals will lose about £43 a month. That might not seem a huge amount, but for too many of my constituents, including those who have been hit by a debilitating injury, degenerative illness or ailment, it could mean having to find a massive chunk of their rent from somewhere else, thereby adding a further economic hurdle to those who want to remain in work.
Another obvious area of contention is the employment and support allowance, which replaced incapacity benefit and income support. The Government plan to reduce the length of time for which someone can receive ESA, and some think that the sole aim of that measure is to reduce the welfare bill rather than to make sure that recipients return to work. We know from the previous Government's initiative in this area, pathways to work, that many unemployed people with disabilities take longer than 12 months to secure employment. The Shaw Trust, one of the largest charities to work with employers, social services and the disabled to help people with disabilities find employment, states that out of all the clients whom it has placed in work so far this year, 20% had been supported for more than 12 months before moving into work, and of those, a third had taken about 18 months. The trust also states that 63% of all its clients on incapacity benefit included in these figures had taken more than 12 months.
Under the Work programme proposals, the Government estimate that around 58% of the 1.5 million incapacity benefit claimants will be moved on to the ESA work-related activity group. This would mean a large number of people being rushed through the programme, potentially only to leave that job because they cannot cope, have not adapted to their new disability, or are just not suitable, thus going back to square one. Matters could be made worse, as those with a new disability could be cut off long before a resumption of work or before rehabilitation is completed. Although the Government need to elaborate further on this area, they have not ruled out sanctions being imposed if ESA recipients have not secured a job. In any case, ESA recipients would face a reduction in income which would, in turn, place homes and family members at great risk.
I mentioned that my Bill has received widespread support in the House and that this is shared outside the Chamber. On previous occasions when I have brought the Bill before Parliament, I have found support from a wide range of stakeholders, ranging from the Trades Union Congress to disability charities such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the Disability Rights Commission and even the CBI.
Being made unemployed through ill health will have an effect on the individual's long-term well-being, and will also have an impact on the economy as many disabled people never return to work. The result is a strain on the state, a burden on pension funds and benefit payments, and even additional recruitment costs for employers to replace and train staff. Through the Bill, the Government, at relatively little cost, would be able to ensure that any regulatory burden on employers is kept to a minimum. It would be an investment that would reap the benefits in the short term for employers and employees, but in the long term for the Government through benefits savings and tax collected. As the Minister knows, for every 100,000 people who go on the dole, the cost to the taxpayer is £500 million. If we can reduce spending by 1% and raise revenues by 1%, we can reduce the deficit by £12 billion. In this Bill I offer the kind of thinking that will help us towards such goals.
I hope that the coalition Government will get behind the Bill. This year alone, 25,000 people will be in need of these changes, and 125,000 people since I first raised the issue. All I ask of the Government is that they support the Bill, prove that they want to keep people in work, and work with all parties to achieve that.
'(4) In determining the polling day for a parliamentary general election under subsection (3) above, no account shall be taken of any early parliamentary general election the polling day for which was appointed under section 2.'.
(2) If a devolved legislature election is scheduled to take place on the same day as a United Kingdom parliamentary general election, then the date of the poll for the devolved legislature general election must vary by-
"(1A) If the scheduled date for a National Assembly for Wales ordinary general election is the same date as for a United Kingdom parliamentary general election, the National Assembly of Wales general election must be held-
(1B) The Secretary of State for Wales shall by order provide for the date of the poll of the National Assembly for Wales ordinary general election, with the agreement of the National Assembly for Wales, subject to subsection (1A).".'.
Jonathan Edwards: I wish to speak also to amendments 12 and 13 in my name and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), the Leader of the Opposition and his hon. Friends, as well as new clauses 4 and 5. The amendments go to the crux of the Bill-the establishment of a specific period between elections and the date on which we hold the next UK parliamentary elections.
My party is in favour of fixed-term Parliaments, for many of the reasons outlined on Second Reading. A fixed-term Parliament removes a Prime Minister's ability to seek the dissolution of Parliament for pure political gain, taking away that significant incumbency advantage-more of which later in my speech. It would end speculation about the timing of the next election and a near-obsession with opinion polls and psephologists about when an election might be called. It provides stability for the political programme, as we have found with the One Wales agreement in Wales, a four-year term, where parties understand what can and cannot be achieved within the required legislative time frame-even in our case where the byzantine workings of legislative competence orders have held up the progress of our law-making, denying us prompt action to solve our problems. By providing a settled timetable, fixed-term Parliaments provide a firm basis for electoral administration, taking away the shock of a snap election and giving a more generous timetable to ensure participation in the voting process.
However, I cannot understand the Government's reasoning behind the insistence on a five-year legislative term, either in this parliamentary term or in the future. To be perfectly honest, there does not seem to be any reason. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government have consistently failed to provide a good reason why the next election should be held in May 2015, not in May 2014. On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister, with bizarre Liberal Democrat logic, presumably taken from a "Focus" leaflet bar graph, claimed that a five-year Parliament would probably amount in practice to a legislative working term of four years. As many hon. Members will already know, the five-year maximum term was implemented in 1911, but even that was introduced with the expectation that the working parliamentary period would probably be four years-a period in which, as Lord Asquith said at the time, a Government had
either the political mandate from the previous election or the unwillingness to commit to unpopular decisions ahead of the next election.
Four years-the length of time between elections for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the London Assembly, the London mayoral elections and local authority, community and even parish council elections in all four parts of the UK-is quite clearly and obviously the norm for the electoral cycle in the nation states.
Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, internationally, the four-year term is pretty much the norm, particularly in Westminster Parliaments? Is he further aware of the academic opinion from Robert Hazell at University College London's constitution unit to Professor Blackburn, who consistently say that five years is too long and smells like a political fix?
The only elections that break that cycle in the UK are the European elections. The elections held and the terms that we expect are the same for elections at all levels, so why are the UK Government seeking to introduce a term that is different from all meaningful precedents?
If four years is good enough for a local councillor, why should an MP be given any longer without once again putting themselves up for election to secure a democratic mandate? The argument has been made that, because the current system allows for up to five years between elections, that should be set in stone as the new norm, but that hardly seems proportionate or common sense. When there is a range of options, it is not normal to go for the most extreme, because more moderate measures make greater common sense and attract greater consensus, especially in this Chamber. Let us be honest: amid the rushed and hasty constitutional changes that the Con-Dem Government have been steamrollering through, consensus, consultation and a genuine attempt to reach cross-party agreement have, unfortunately, been greatly lacking.
A fairer litmus test of how long a fixed-term Parliament might be is the average length of time between elections. As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who I am glad to say will break with tradition tonight and, I hope, vote for an amendment in the name of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party, noted on Second Reading,
"the average length of a peacetime Parliament"-
has been three years and eight months."-[ Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 625.]
Similarly, as Robert Hazell of University college London's constitution unit noted in his written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, although the balance of Parliaments has been between four and five years, those that went the whole term were those governed by Prime Ministers who did not believe that they would win an election after four years. A five-year parliamentary term, as we saw between 1992 and 1997 and 2005 and 2010 in particular, is often therefore a result of the unpopularity of the governing party. It seems ironic that this Con-Dem Government, one of whose parties is already highly unpopular in Wales-with just 5% support, according to the most recent poll, in north Wales-should opt for the length of time that is associated with the failure to govern successfully and to govern with public support. Perhaps that is just an expectation of things to come.
Why should this Parliament be for five years and not four? Why should we hold the election on 7 May 2015 and not on 1 May 2014? After all, when John Major and when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) stayed in power for five years, they were accused of holding on to power. Is the same accusation not true of the current Government? There appears to be no great reason why five years should be the chosen length of the new fixed-term Parliament.
When questioned on Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared loth to give a fuller explanation. I hope that we hear a better account this evening, because neither was an explanation more forthcoming from other Government Members. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) reminded us that his party's election manifesto was for a four-year fixed-term Parliament, the proposal that my party supports. He said that he did not know when the policy was changed by the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
I have heard much from the Liberal Democrats in recent months about the need for agreement and compromise in coalition, but I am not entirely sure at whom the message was aimed, because my party has been part of a successful coalition in Wales since we signed the One Wales agreement in 2007. The key to success, I can tell the Liberal Democrats, was agreeing the policy programme before signing the deal, not making it up as we went along, which seems to have been the case with the UK Government. Being part of a coalition does not mean that we have to sell our souls; it means that we reach a practical agreement on policies.
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): My hon. Friend talks about the merits of coalition Government, but in these islands there is a Government who have only 46 Members but manage to pass their budgets with majorities in the 70s and 80s. Coalition government is not always the way; there is also the minority government model, which is working very successfully in Scotland.
A five-year Parliament was not in either governing party's manifesto, and was not put to a public vote. I often wonder, as I watch the coalition Government's policies morph before me and see stories about the coalition discussions leak out in books and in the Sunday press, just how much influence Back-Bench Lib Dems had over the policy negotiations. I wonder whether they, like me, wake up and wonder which policy of theirs will be changed today. As we are getting used to saying in Wales, "Another day, another Lib-Dem U-turn."
So, we are still no closer to understanding why five and not four years is the chosen length for a fixed term of the UK Parliament. Perhaps a wag on the Government Benches-by that I mean a wit, not the more common tabloid usage of the word-was correct when she referred to the next election date as being " the date of the next election, cementing the coalition". Others think that this is a response to the economic cycle, and the hope is that by 2015 the worm will have turned and the tremendous gamble with our economy, our livelihoods and our communities that we witnessed in the comprehensive spending review will have paid off, and we will be enjoying the fruits of a hard-won recovery. Either way, it appears to be a decision made from political expediency, and that is not in the best interests of the electorate or democracy.
Ms Louise Bagshawe (Corby) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister currently has the right to extend this Parliament to 2015 if he wishes, so how is it an aggregation of power for him to give up the right to call an election at the time of his own choosing?
Many would say that the decision to run five-year electoral terms is a result of political expediency. I have a fair bit of experience of coalitions, and their policies should not have to be welded together in a back room in the way that those of the Con-Dem coalition have been. There is huge irony in the Deputy Prime Minister's coming to this House to say that the coalition is taking away the Prime Minister's right to call an election at the time of his choosing, because it is not. This addresses the point made by the hon. Member for Corby (Ms Bagshawe). The one who is currently in charge can choose the longest possible time to be in charge providing that he can keep his own party happy.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee notes that much of the evidence it received was against the idea of a five-year fixed parliamentary term. Neither constitutional experts nor the public are in favour of the new electoral system being set at this length of time. Indeed, some experts saw a note of irony in that by spacing out the time between elections at this maximum length, the active participation of many voters in the electoral system will be reduced rather than increased or improved, as many people, sadly, choose to mark their ballot paper only in a UK general election and do not participate at other levels of democracy. That is another issue that has not been considered properly in the discussions so far.
On Second Reading, many Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), drew attention to the most salient
concern-that of having the elections on the same day as other elections, specifically those of the devolved Administrations. There is nothing of what Aretha Franklin, or even George Galloway, might describe as "Respect" in the UK Government's treatment of the devolved Administrations in this affair, which has been notably lacking in meaningful consultation.
Mr MacNeil: Is not that point all the more serious with a UK general election, a Scottish election and a Welsh election possibly happening at the same time, lined up with the referendum? We want to avoid that because we know the media cannot handle it. That disservice will be done to Scotland not only this time but yet again in four to five years' time.
During the debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, we discussed at length the principle of holding a National Assembly for Wales election on the same day as a referendum on the electoral system for the UK Parliament. Despite the objections of Opposition parties and, perhaps more importantly, those who make up the Welsh and Scottish Governments, that Bill was passed, once again showing up the Con-Dem Government's disrespect agenda for Wales and the other devolved nations. Ironically, even their best argument-the idea that savings would be made through combining the polls and that electors would not have to traipse to the polling station more than once-means little in the Welsh context, as we will already go to the ballot box in March for a referendum on the transfer of powers to the Welsh Government under part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, and then again in the following May. Of course, the referendum on further powers is far more relevant to the National Assembly elections than the referendum on AV.
I am not here to repeat the arguments we have already had, although they remain equally relevant and valid to the amendment as they did to debates on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. That clash of elections will occur once every five terms for the devolved Administrations and once every four terms for Westminster elections. As yet, we have no idea when a reformed House of Lords will be elected. I am a great believer in not underestimating the public, and in publishing the Bill the UK coalition Government are failing to learn from previous practices and errors. Many will remember that the 2007 Scottish Parliament and local elections were held on the same day, with the result that there were an astonishing 147,000 spoilt ballot papers.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The hon. Gentleman cannot be allowed to get away with saying that all the spoilt ballot papers were because two elections were held on the same day. The reason was the poor design of the Scottish Parliament election ballot paper. There were two columns, and people had to put a cross in each, but the instructions were not clear. That was the reason for the spoilt ballot papers, not the fact that there were two elections on one day.
That was, of course, the first election after a new system was introduced, with the single transferrable vote being used in local elections in Scotland. Fortunately, we in Wales had already learned lessons and decoupled our local authority and Assembly elections by a year.
Mr MacNeil: Although it is true that the main problem at the last Scottish election was the design of the ballot paper, covering both the constituency and list votes, the man who looked into the matter, Mr Gould, nevertheless suggested that different elections should not happen on the same day. There was a feeling that that had contributed to the difficulties, even though the main difficulty was the design of the ballot paper.
Jonathan Edwards: My hon. Friend makes a more informed contribution than I do, but I was just getting to the Gould report. It was an independent review by the Electoral Commission, and its conclusions and recommendations stated:
"One of the more controversial issues in the 3 May 2007 elections was whether the Scottish parliamentary and the local government elections should have been combined on the same day. We were not surprised by the concerns that were expressed to us about this issue because pursuing combined or separate elections involves a trade-off of different objectives.
If local issues and the visibility of local government candidates are viewed as a primary objective, then separating the...parliamentary from the local government elections is necessary in order to avoid the dominance of campaigns conducted for...parliamentary contests. In addition, separating the two elections would result in minimising the potential for voter confusion."
Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making some incredibly powerful arguments. Would he like to comment on the fact that not only would Westminster and Scottish parliamentary elections clash every five years, but the exact situation referred to in the Gould report-a clash with Scottish local government elections-would happen every four years? We could have the alternative vote system for Westminster while running the single transferrable vote system for the Scottish local government elections, which, as the Gould report highlighted, would be a disaster.
The words in the Gould report that I quoted make it clear to me, first, that elections should not take place at the same time when there is a trade-off between different objectives, as there clearly would be between a UK Westminster election and an election to the National Assembly for Wales or the other devolved Assemblies. Secondly, they show the problem of the dominance of one election over another. National Assembly for Wales elections are in no way inferior to UK general elections. To many people they mean much more, as they are a way of directly influencing the health and education policies that have an impact on everybody in one form or another.
We must consider the impact of our media, and even the failure of our politicians to understand what is at stake at different levels. Who can forget, for example,
the Conservatives using in a UK general election campaign the words of a woman in Wales, Julie from Llandudno, about her concern for education, even though the matter was not even being voted upon in Wales, where education is devolved? Such things have an impact on the perceptions of the electorate.
In the spring, we faced a bizarre, presidential-style contest that was alien to our democracy, in which we elect candidates to Parliament and then usually select the leader of the largest party in the legislature to head up the Executive. There is no doubt that giving three party leaders additional prominence had an impact on an election in which minority party candidates were forced to buck the trend to be elected. Were that to happen at the same time as a Welsh election to the National Assembly, it would cause untold damage to our democracy as Welsh issues, concerns and policies would be steamrollered by the UK media. In Wales, and to a lesser extent in Scotland, we face media that are largely published in England and understandably promote English issues and concerns. When the King report was published two years ago, it was noted that in a month of prime-time reports on health and education, both of which are devolved issues, not once in 134 stories was there any mention of the fact that those policies did not affect Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. That was a criticism of the BBC-a public service broadcaster.
Mr MacNeil: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman was as appalled as I was by a "Question Time" programme about two weeks ago. The issue of fiscal autonomy or independence, which is of crucial relevance to Scotland and, in a way, the UK, too, was raised by Nicola Sturgeon, but David Dimbleby just did not want to hear about it. Does my hon. Friend not think that that typifies the attitude of the BBC? Although the attitude was writ small in that case, in the event of an election it shows that there would be no interest at all from a London-centric point of view to air and properly discuss issues that affect the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Jonathan Edwards: Once again, my hon. Friend makes my point for me. What is important in this context is that the BBC is a public service broadcaster. I hesitate to say that the private sector is worse because it could hardly do much worse than nought out of 134. If this issue affects the BBC, it will certainly affect the private press as well.
The English or the UK-based media, which are, by and large, one and the same thing, have difficulties handling devolution issues. Given its high penetration into Wales, it would undoubtedly skew the National Assembly elections. That is a salient concern and one that the UK Government would be wise to heed before continuing down this route.
"More important is that they engage with the campaign in a meaningful manner and make a knowledgeable decision on their ballot paper."
It is quite clear that the recommendations of the Gould report could equally apply to a separation of UK and devolved elections, which involve very different objectives and issues-not least in devolved issues such as health or education where some parties will be giving voters mixed messages due to the different policies that operate in different parts of the UK.
This clash will be further complicated by the changes to the UK-wide parliamentary constituencies, especially in Wales. In Scotland, however, the changes are already in place to some extent. Under the terms of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill-it remains as opaque as ever as to why we debated the alternative vote referendum and the cut in the number of MPs in the same Bill while debating a fixed-term Parliament separately-Wales will lose probably 10 Members of Parliament.
That Bill also separated, or decoupled, the boundaries of Westminster constituency seats, which, under the new rules, will be set by the Boundary Commission for Wales. The rules make numbers on the electoral roll a more significant criterion than geography, history and other factors, and the National Assembly constituency boundaries will remain the same until the next Boundary Commission for Wales and will be set under the traditional rules.
Although I agree in principle with those changes, it would have been ridiculous to have lost 10 Assembly Members from the National Assembly because of a change in the rules at Westminster. That was an obvious weakness in the Government of Wales Act 2006. Although the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill contained only one Welsh clause, no time was given in this place for proper discussions.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Despite the fact that the majority of Welsh MPs asked for a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee, which was set up for such a purpose, the Secretary of State for Wales refused that request. Why does the hon. Gentleman think that is?
Jonathan Edwards: The right hon. Lady knows that I am in full agreement with her. It was very important that those issues were discussed. It was a disgrace that the Secretary of State refused that request.
These changes will have a clear impact as electors find themselves not merely with the added burden of an extra piece of paper to complete, as they will in the clashing elections next May and the alternative vote referendum, but voting for different constituency locations. I am proud to serve on the Welsh Affairs Committee in my first term in Parliament. The Committee received evidence from a number of organisations on these potential problems, and reported on them in our first publication of this Session, entitled "'The implications for Wales of the Government's proposals
on constitutional reform". We heard, for example, testimony from Lewis Baston, senior research fellow with Democratic Audit. He said that
"the elections for Westminster and the Assembly would be taking place on different systems on the same day, and more complicatedly on two sets of boundaries which will hardly ever correlate with each other."
Chris Bryant: I respect Lewis Baston enormously, but he is slightly wrong: there would be three different sets of boundaries in Wales and Scotland, because there are majority elected seats as well as regional seats. There is no guarantee in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that UK parliamentary boundaries will respect the boundaries of the regions used for Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections, so there will be three different boundaries.
Jonathan Edwards: I was coming to exactly that point. Electors will have three ballot papers: one for the Westminster constituency, which will be a separate location from the Assembly constituency, and a third paper for Assembly regional candidates. Scotland already has distinct UK and Scottish Parliament boundaries, but they remain fixed in Northern Ireland.
Ian Murray: The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way to me again. If the Scottish parliamentary and UK elections were held on the same day, is it outwith the realms of possibility that my constituents would have to go to two separate polling stations?
That decoupling might lead to Westminster and the National Assembly for Wales having very different constituencies, and surely to confusion between different candidates, different policy areas and different locations. Just as importantly, there will be confusion because different electoral systems are used and different local authority electoral services will take responsibility for different counts.
Mr MacNeil: Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), surely the answer to avoiding the clash of dates is to give the devolved legislature or Government the power to change the date of elections, whether in respect of Cardiff, Holyrood or Belfast. If people foresee a clash with the US presidential election, for example, a Westminster election or-who knows?-the cup final, they could change dates.
Mr Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con):
The hon. Gentleman makes the reasonable point that there is a risk of confusion, but will he cast his mind back to the situation that pertained in London in
2004? We had a mayoral election, a Greater London assembly election, which featured a top-up list, and a full European election on the same day. The reality was that there was no sense of any great confusion among Londoners. I am sure that the Welsh electorate is no more stupid than the London electorate, and therefore that it would find a way to make the proposals work.
Jonathan Edwards: Obviously, my fears might come to nothing, but I see no reason why democracy should be held hostage to fortune in that way. The complication, of course, is how the media report different elections. That is the big difference between London elections and those for the devolved Administrations.
We are aware of the potential pitfalls, and I see no suitable way of dealing with them except by holding the different elections apart from each other. Of course, those are the known unknowns. As yet, we have no way of knowing the unknown unknowns between now and the next set of elections.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned one problem with holding different elections on the same day. Many who apply for a postal vote for the Westminster election will assume that they will automatically receive a postal vote for every election, but in fact, they will not, because they need to apply separately for a postal vote for the other elections.
From the perspective of candidates, another argument against the five-year fixed-term UK Parliament and the clash with devolved Administration elections is that political parties in those countries will need to find suitably more candidates to contest those elections-probably about 90 in Wales, if the Con-Dem Government have their way with the boundary changes enacted in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, and about 180 in Scotland.
Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of pertinent points about the difficulties in Wales in particular. Can he enlighten us on what consultation has taken place with the devolved Assemblies on these proposals?
Returning to the point about candidates, I am confident that my party will have no difficulty in finding quality candidates the length and breadth of Wales, although it might be a different matter, of course, for smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats. However, ensuring quality coverage, so that the electorate can become familiar with the people, and not only the party, for whom they are voting, will be doubly difficult if they are all fighting for air time.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP):
I am sure that my hon. Friend is looking forward, like I am, with great anticipation to finding out how the Minister will reply to this debate. On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was minded to
move the date of the election. Is my hon. Friend aware of any Government amendments dealing with this matter, or is this yet another Liberal broken promise?
Mr Reid: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be arguing that the right length of time for this Parliament is four years. His whole case seems to be that there will be a clash of elections every 20 years. I agree that it would be a bad idea for both elections to be on the same day, so were the Government to give the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly the power to alter the date of their elections, would he withdraw his new clause?
Jonathan Edwards: I made it clear earlier that my preference is for four years and, as the hon. Member for Rhondda has said, the norm has been three years and eight months. Why go to five years, therefore, if the norm over the past 200 years has been three years and eight months? That seems tried and tested.
Pete Wishart: Why on earth should it not be this House that moves its dates? When this Bill was introduced, the Government knew there was to be a Scottish parliamentary election in 2015? Is it not the ultimate disrespect that this place expects the Scottish Parliament to move on its behalf?
Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is being a little unfair to the Liberal Democrats. So far it is not a broken promise, but just a promise. It might become a broken promise, but at the moment it is just a promise.
On Second Reading, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared somewhat surprised that having elections on the same day might cause problems. In fact, he seemed slightly perplexed, as if he had not previously considered the possibility. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who noted that there was provision in the various devolution Acts for those legislatures to vary elections by up to four weeks only, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
"That is exactly...why we need to consider whether the existing provisions are sufficient."-[ Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 627.]
That was commented on shortly after by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who, quite understandably, wondered why, if the Deputy Prime Minister was already aware of the potential for problems, no provision had been made in the Bill to counter them. Admissions of that sort show up this Bill as having been flung together, rather than considered and properly scrutinised.
Mr MacNeil: Would it not be a great sign of maturity from the Government if they could accept new clause 4 and accept that various legislatures-be they in Westminster, Holyrood or wherever-have the right to pick their own window for an election in order to avoid clashes with another legislature and to allow the media the time to communicate properly with the populations? The latter will be difficult, as BBC "Question Time" the other week proved.
I am afraid that admissions of the sort that we heard from the Deputy Prime Minister show this legislation up as having been flung together rather than considered properly. The UK Government told us on Second Reading:
"We take these issues seriously and are not just paying lip service to them."-[ Official Report, 13 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 702.]
However, we have no new amendments on the issue to discuss in Committee, and no answers have been given to the questions posed about how the Government plan to deal with those concerns. I hope that we will hear more from the UK Government on the issue today, as requested by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in our first report. Nobody in Wales has any confidence that their voice is being heard for as long as the UK Government continue to steamroller their policies through without time for due consideration and scrutiny.
What type of separation is acceptable? At present, the only available option is for elections to be varied by up to one month. In the case of Wales, the power is held by the Secretary of State for Wales. Eagle-eyed Members will have noticed that I have tabled a series of new clauses to deal with that eventuality: in particular new clause 4, which refers to the devolved legislatures in general, and new clause 5, which refers to the Welsh situation in particular. Those new clauses would provide a mechanism for varying the date of the National Assembly for Wales general election and the elections to the other devolved legislatures in Scotland and Northern Ireland, by between two months, and 12 months and a week, so as to avoid a clash with UK parliamentary elections under the new fixed-term system.
I also tabled related amendments to the Government of Wales Act 1998, which would transfer those powers from the Secretary of State for Wales to the National Assembly for Wales, as I believe that a democratically elected body representing the people of Wales should be in charge of electoral conduct, not a Secretary of State who frequently has no mandate. Sadly, new clause 6 has not been selected by Mr Speaker, so we will not have the opportunity to debate that context fully.
Our amendments were tabled as it had become patently clear that the UK Government were planning to bury their head in the sand. My new clauses were tabled to ensure that the issue of separate general election dates for the devolved legislatures was discussed in Committee. To explain that in more detail, the various Acts of devolution allow for a variation of one month between the scheduled date for the election and a date on which it can be held, as I said earlier. Presumably those powers are to be used in exceptional circumstances to allow
leeway should an unexpected occurrence take place, as happened in 2003 with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. In contrast, clause 1(5) gives the UK Parliament the power to expand that period to two months under those circumstances. I presume that in neither case was it assumed that the date would be varied because of another election being held on the same day. In Wales and Northern Ireland, those powers to vary the date of the general election are in the hands of the respective Secretary of State, whereas in Scotland they are, I believe, in the hands of the Presiding Officer.
In the absence of any indication from the UK Government that they plan to deal with the issues raised by holding UK parliamentary and devolved legislature elections on the same date, our new clauses would provide a mechanism for holding devolved elections on a separate date at least two months before or after the UK parliamentary election, yet no more than 12 months and one week before or after that election. The date of the devolved legislature election would be recommended by the appropriate authority, with the consent of the devolved body. Two months is the absolute minimum that one could expect to be the difference between one set of elections and another. Under those circumstances, we would expect the devolved legislatures to recommend holding an election either close to the opposing equinox-be that late spring, between March and May, or mid-autumn, at the end of September or in October-or a full year apart, as we do at the moment, with the UK election taking place in May this year and the devolved legislatures going to the polls in May 2011. The clock would then be reset, so that the next election would take place approximately four years later, on the first Thursday in May.
The nature of fixed-term Parliaments-let us remember that we have had no need for early, extraordinary general elections in Wales or Scotland since their introduction-means that changes can be made in a timely and orderly fashion, so that nobody is in any doubt about when the next election will take place. However, this is not a perfect solution. It allows for variations in the length of a Parliament or Assembly, and therefore changes the notion of a fixed-term Parliament or Assembly. We made our suggestion to remind the Government that a problem exists and that the present restrictions do not allow enough time to avoid a hangover from one election to the next, even if they are held a month apart, not least for our exhausted election campaign teams, never mind the public.
The variation of one month between elections, which legislation currently makes possible, is better than holding them on the same date, but is clearly not sufficient to ensure avoidance of cross-pollination between one electoral event and another. I have set out our preferred position, which is to have a sensible and systematic four-year, fixed-term Parliament. That would avoid all those problems. There is not a problem at the moment and nothing is broken, so why are we making trouble in the Bill?
To return to amendment 11, holding a UK election in May 2014, even under a five-year timetable, would at least provide more time to decide how to deal with the problems. If the UK election were held in 2014 and we continued with devolved legislature elections a year later, the next clash would not come until 2019, giving us a further electoral cycle to come to terms with the issue. That is not an ideal solution-I have made it clear
that I believe that a four-year fixed term would be considerably preferable-but it would at least buy additional time to debate and enact safeguards.
Two suggestions other than ours have been made. One is worthy of further discussion, although I do not necessarily agree with it. It was suggested by Professor Hazell, and it is that UK general elections should take place in October, thereby ensuring separation from all other elections. I would like to hear the Government's thoughts on that proposal because it might solve some of the issues that I have raised today. The weather would still be mild, it would be during the school term, and it would still be British summer time. The greatest problem would surely be MPs having to give up their summer holidays to campaign. It is also the conference season.
Another alternative, if we assume that the new political cycle will be five years and not four, is that the term of devolved Administrations should be changed to represent this new reality and should elect their Members every five years, thereby avoiding the concerns that I have laid before the House today. Again, that is not the favoured outcome of my party, and it is not the policy of any of the devolved legislatures or their Governments, but it is another solution that can be offered to meet some of the problems created by the Bill.
My amendment to hold UK parliamentary elections every fourth year, rather than every fifth year as in the Bill, is not the only one being spoken to today. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) will argue on amendments 7, 8, 9 and 10 that elections should be held every third year. On Second Reading, he referred to Australia and New Zealand, which are both great countries and both great rugby countries. Australia is led by a woman who originally came from Barry in Wales, and New Zealand is an example of the possibilities for a coherent coalition Government. However, I am rejecting this suggestion for some of the same reasons that I believe that a five-year term should be rejected: that it is not in keeping with the UK's traditional four-year electoral cycle.
Lord Asquith referred to the length of terms and the ability to provide a parliamentary legislative term between elections every three years. In my opinion, three years would be too short for a Government to come into being, develop their legislative programme and begin to enact it before being judged by the electorate. Four years seems to be a far more suitable time frame for people to judge whether a Government have been successful in keeping to their mandate and in improving the country.
Under amendment 32, tabled by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and others, the date of an election would be enshrined in the Bill, and would be held on the first Thursday in May every five years, irrespective of any extraordinary general elections, instead of the clock ticking again after an early election. If the amendment were accepted, we might find ourselves with more frequent clashes than once every 20 years between elections, and if that were unacceptable in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it would be doubly so if it took place because of instability in this place.
One problem of not restarting the clock at every election is the possibility, or even the probability, of a lame-duck Government. If an election were held three and a half years into the term, a Government elected
democratically at the polls would have only 18 months before facing the people again. As I have outlined, that is not enough time for a serious parliamentary legislative programme to be enacted, so it makes no sense to return to the polls so soon after an extraordinary election. This is where we must trade off between the certainty of knowing every election date until Wales and Scotland leave the Union with the practicalities of governing, so I shall not support amendment 32.
I am arguing today in favour of a four-year fixed-term Parliament, beginning with this current parliamentary term, with the next election taking place on 1 May 2014. There is nothing inevitable about clashes between different levels of elections, but that will be an outcome of the introduction of a fixed-term Parliament that runs on a timetable that is at odds with the established political electoral cycle of other devolved legislatures.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): If the Northern Ireland Assembly were to say that it wanted its elections to run alongside the Westminster elections, would the hon. Gentleman accept that that should be able to happen? Or is he saying in his amendment that that should not happen?
There are four-year electoral terms for the National Assembly for Wales, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and all other devolved bodies and councils. The arrangements should be the same for the UK Parliament. We do not yet know when we will be voting for the House of Lords, a principle whose implementation we have been awaiting for quite some time, or for our police commissioners-an idea that excites no one save those on the Government Benches. The five-year terms of the European Parliament are an aberration from our electoral norm. The proposals in the Bill would also be an aberration.
A four-year Parliament beginning in 2014 would have the advantage of avoiding the problems associated with clashes between UK general elections and those of the devolved legislatures, which are many. The Bill has been presented to Parliament as a fait accompli, with no good reason as to why the next election must be in 2015 and why there must be five-year Parliaments. Political expediency is not the best principle on which to base good law-making. I fully support the concept of fixed-term Parliaments, but I cannot support a five-year fixed-term Parliament that will have strongly negative effects on democracy. I hope that the UK Government will see sense on this matter and respond positively to this suggestion, rather than putting their head in the sand and trying to brazen through a five-year parliamentary term without consensus in this House or among the other Parliaments in the UK. We shall be pressing amendments 11 and 12 to a vote, and we will not support clause 1 if it remains in its present format.
Mr Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I shall support all those amendments that propose a four-year fixed-term Parliament, and in so doing I shall invoke someone who when I was growing up was considered a great Liberal. Mr Asquith spoke in the Chamber that preceded this one, and, in a recent debate on 21 February 1911 on the Parliament Bill which was to change the Septennial Act 1715, he said:
"In the first place 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."-[ Official Report, 21 February 1911; Vol. XXI, c. 1749.]
Asquith's reasons have been borne out in all the years since then. The average length of a Parliament is not far off four years, and his points relate to the electorate. None of the constitutional proposals of the Deputy Prime Minister-who I again note is not following his own Bill on the Floor of the House of Commons-strengthens the position of the electorate versus the Crown as represented by the Government. The proposals are therefore abandoning the principle that a Government have the authority to govern but must be mindful that there is a time after which the electorate should make a judgment on the actions, activities and success of that Government. That is all being cast out for what I believe to be a profoundly cynical purpose: the entrenchment, or attempted entrenchment, of a particular Parliament for five years. That requires a Bill. I do not know whether it is possible to present clause stand part arguments on the basis of parliamentary privilege and the series of very serious arguments that lie behind what we are discussing.
Mark Tami: The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he said that the Bill was really all about the current Parliament, and about holding the coalition together. No thought has been given to what it actually means for the future; it is just about holding the coalition together today.
The Bill has not, of course, received pre-legislative scrutiny in the traditional way, but nor did Asquith's Bill. That Bill was an attempt to bring together the threads of our constitutional history. What distresses me most about this constitutional arrangement, and the actions of the coalition Government, is that they think that we are all back-of-the-envelope legislators who set aside the traditions and history of our own constitution. They are trying to legislate for something that I believe is unnecessary. A Government last for as long as that Government can command a majority in the House of Commons: that is a fundamental constitutional proposition in the Parliament Act.
Mr Mark Field: My hon. Friend will know that I share many of his fears about the Bill, along with the other constitutional change that has been proposed. However, in so far as we are to have fixed-term Parliaments, might it not be regarded as even more cynical if we moved away from the five-year norm which has, as my hon. Friend says, been in place for the last 99 years, even if that five-year norm is a maximum?
The point is that the coalition Government have set their heart on five years, so that is the proposition that we are examining. I was trying to advance the
arguments that were presented to the House as recently as 1911, but the post-1945 chart, featuring 17 or 18 elections, shows that, in all but four cases, the average length of a Government has been about four years. The principle behind that is fairly closely related to what Asquith said. It is right that there should have been a recent renewal of a Government's mandate; it is right that a Government should be mindful that they face an election. But if we are to adopt fixed-term Parliaments, what is the right period, given that the Government concerned command a majority in the House?
Mr Mark Field: In fact, there have been 17 elections since 1945, and the average length of a Government has been three years and 10 months. Does my hon. Friend agree that when the four-year term has been the norm, that has been because a Government have gone to the country at the time that they feel is best for them, whereas when a term lasts for the full five years, that has generally been because the Government in question had very little choice? In other words, there has been an element of expediency-one might even call it cynicism-behind the actions of Governments who have used the maximum five-year term for their own benefit.
Mr Shepherd: There is, of course, no question about that in my mind. Governments will try to engineer an election at the moment that is most convenient for them, although it may not be the best point in the cycle of public opinion, or relate to the sense of the House as a settled House.
Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman said that Asquith's Bill did not receive pre-legislative scrutiny. Does he agree that we might be more relaxed about a lack of pre-legislative scrutiny if the Government were willing to reach out, listen, and take ideas on board-considered ideas that were not on the back of an envelope? May I suggest, in the context of new clause 4, that whether we support four years or five, it makes sense to allow other legislatures in the United Kingdom to alter, or tweak, what they are doing in relation to either Westminster or a five-year term?
Mr Shepherd: There is a simple amendment which the hon. Gentleman did not table, and which was not discussed in the lengthy and closely read speech of the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). That amendment would state that the general election must take place on, let us say, the first Thursday in October. That would meet the point for which the hon. Gentleman argued at such great length-that he should not have to deal with the coincidence of elections on the same day. He did not table that simple amendment, however, and as it is not on the amendment paper I cannot speak to it.
"In the UK, there can be little doubt that the period between general elections should be four years."
"The proposal for fixed term Parliament as a whole should fit as closely as possible into existing constitutional expectations, and the idea that four years is about the right length of time
between elections is very prevalent. It was the period expressly approved of as being normal in practice, when the Parliament Act set the period of five years as a maximum."
"In an ideal democracy it may be that there should be elections as frequently as possible-even annually as supported by the Chartists in the eighteenth century".
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell), who is present, has tabled an amendment proposing a period of three years, and we could refer back to the Chartists, so it is clear that these arguments were not unfamiliar at different times in the history of this country. There was an argument that we should have annual elections; that was a powerful movement in the early 19th century. It was thought that Parliaments and Governments must not move too far from the opinion of the public and the electorate.
Tristram Hunt: Professor Blackburn's speech is particularly interesting, because he goes on to say- [Interruption.] Well, I will let the hon. Gentleman read it out then, because the key point is in the following paragraph.
"It was the period expressly approved of as being normal in practice, when the Parliament Act set the period of five years as a maximum. In an ideal democracy it may be that there should be elections as frequently as possible-even annually as supported by the Chartists in the eighteenth century-but a government must be allowed a sufficient period of time in which to put its programme of public policies into effect before submitting its record of achievement, or otherwise, to the voters. Three full legislative sessions, and certainly four, is sufficient for this purpose."
Chris Bryant: I agree with the point made in that quotation; indeed, I was going to refer to that passage in my speech. For the sake of accuracy, however, I should point out that the Chartists were really in the 19th century, not the 18th. I hope that that does not invalidate the historical record.
Mr Shepherd: What a trivial point, but I thought I had said the 19th century. I stand corrected if I did not, and I am sorry if I misinformed the Committee. [Interruption.] No, I do not think I was quoting at that point. [Interruption.] I said the 19th century, I think. I am well aware of that fact; it was part of my own training.
The central issue, however, is the legitimacy of Governments and the determination of what is the right period for enabling the people to have a view, and control, over the Crown as represented by the Government in this place.
Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. I can see from his face that he is not particularly happy about it. However, may I ask him to make his position clear? Does he feel that there should still be flexibility in the calling of elections, or does he support a four-year term? I am a little confused as to where he is taking his argument.
Mr Shepherd: I am sorry if that is the case. I am speaking in support of those amendments that call for a four-year Parliament, as opposed to the Government's position, which is that there should be five-year Parliaments. I accept, of course, that Governments face exigencies. We well remember that Mr Blair postponed an announced date of an election because of a nationwide country alarm over foot and mouth disease. There has to be an element of flexibility for such circumstances. War would clearly alter the schedule for elections too, and Parliament has within its means the ability to extend the period at such times, because this is the sovereign body for the United Kingdom. That point should be borne in mind: however much I may rejoice in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament, in Wales and the Welsh Assembly, and in the arrangements in Northern Ireland, the Westminster Parliament is the fount of the authority under which national elections for this place are held. Therefore, although the House should bear in mind any exegesis on inconveniences, ultimately it is for those of us who are sent here by the people to represent them to decide what is in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole in the formation of a Parliament that holds to account the Government whose Members sit on the Treasury Bench in this House. That is all; I am, in truth, making a very simple argument. I think four years is more appropriate than five. That is what this is about. I think there is sufficient flexibility.
I have cited certain authorities, such as Professor Blackburn and Asquith. I do not want the argument to be lost to a lot of academic writers, however. Professor Hazell at University College London is a former civil servant; he worked in the Cabinet Office. I want to hear about the great constitutional writers who informed past debates, but that is singularly missing when this House comes to discuss what is right. We do not talk about the experience of previous times.
What is the reasoning behind this clause? It appears to suit the personal convenience of a coalition. Most people I meet see and understand that perfectly well. Why would we support such a measure if we are representing the people and the interests of this House of Commons? That is the burden of the arguments I am putting forward for a four-year term rather than five years.
I also want to repeat that I regret that the Government have made no case for five years. That has been a major omission in all these constitutional debates. They assert, without authority or reference to anything, that the needs are such that five years is somehow a more suitable period. By and large, I do not believe in international comparisons, but I note that most modern democracies-the United States, for instance, with its 200-year-old constitution and President-work to a four-year cycle in determining who is to be their chief executive. The United States works to a six-year cycle, with third terms, for the Senate, and a two-year cycle for its equivalent body to our House of Commons. Our tradition has been different.
Mr Mark Field:
Does my hon. Friend not appreciate that if we are to have a fixed-term for this Parliament, five years is the only acceptable period? If any other term had been proposed, that would have been felt to be entirely cynical. Is not my hon. Friend's argument essentially that these changes should be put in place only for future Parliaments? We were all elected on 6 May on the basis
of a set of rules for getting rid of a Parliament and for the terms and duration of it. These proposed measures for fixed-term Parliaments should take effect for future Parliaments; they should not bind this one.
Mr Shepherd: I was elected under the law as it then stood, and I expected that the length of term in place at the time would apply. I also expected that any Prime Minister would make decisions in that context. As well as my question of the relationship of the electorate to the House of Commons to the Executive, there is another that hangs over this entire argument: why do we need any of this? What improvement does it bring to the current position?
Mark Tami: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that neither Front-Bench team argued the case? I cannot recall anybody having argued for a five-year term, apart from now, when it is convenient for the coalition parties to wed for this period of time.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): Does my hon. Friend appreciate that many of us may well be cautious, because although we are concentrating on the question of a fixed-term Parliament, when we move on we will be examining the question of an early general election and questions of confidence-confidence in whom and for what? We will also deal with whether such questions should be decided by a simple majority or one of two thirds. These hugely important questions go straight to the heart of the future of this Parliament.
Mr Shepherd: My hon. Friend is, of course, right. This is a hugely important constitutional Bill and we should not doubt that. Every commentator of any serious worth has noted that this is an enormously important constitutional issue and we will try to tickle out its ramifications, including for parliamentary privilege, within our very tight timetable. What he says is true and just, and we should listen to it.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I note my hon. Friend's observations about America. Of course, its terms really are fixed: the Senate cannot alter its six years, the President cannot alter his four years and Congress cannot alter its two years. What we are saying, which is consistent with the Parliament Act 1911, is that five years would be the expected norm. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) notes, at least two mechanisms could bring an end to a Parliament should this House decide, so we are stopping the Prime Minister from having an election early for expedient purposes. Instead, we are saying that there should be a five-year term, as suggested in 1911 and as used by several Parliaments afterwards-
Mr Shepherd: I make the gentlest of suggestions to my hon. Friend that he misleads himself. I provided the quote from Asquith which set out the position as the House then understood it, and it has turned out, by and large, to be correct over the intervening years. I do not want so to close down the options of this House that when a Government fail or cannot command a majority there is not a general election, as such an election is necessary for the public will. However, as the long title makes clear, we are looking at a Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the suggestion on the table is for the term to last five years. I do not understand where my hon. Friend is coming from if he thinks that in 1911 the proposal was for a full five-year term-it was not.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): This is a most intriguing debate and my hon. Friend speaks with great passion and impartiality about these important matters. Surely this Parliament can opt for a five-year Parliament but it cannot bind future Parliaments. Should those Parliaments wish to change the arrangement, they will be able to opt for a four-year or a three-year Parliament, or whatever they should wish for at the time.
Mr Shepherd: But the options are closing. This measure is part of a constitutional package. We passed a piece of legislation that may introduce a new electoral system and that may ensure that no one party has an overall majority in the future, so to say that we are able to change something will be a matter of great negotiation across the Floor of the House. That is why I am very cautious about accepting changes to established norms and constitutional practice as we have experienced it over my lifetime and since 1911.
Pete Wishart: The hon. Gentleman talks of Asquith, but may I bring him up to date with perhaps a less illustrious modern Liberal, the Deputy Prime Minister? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this measure is all about survival? It is about a Liberal deal to try to get this coalition through and not at all about any great, grand constitutional reform. It is about the survival of the Liberals in this Government.
Mr Shepherd: We all draw our own conclusions, and I suggested something. What we are clear about is that the Deputy Prime Minister has just repudiated Liberal Democrat-as they now call themselves-fixed positions on two Bills. The first was the voting system, and the Liberals are doing the same on this measure; they had a fixed position but it is gone. We ask what the motives are, but there is no point in my attributing motives-the world and its wife will do that for us, so we do not need to worry about it.
What we want to maintain is the constitutional right of the people we represent and the balance of power within this Chamber between the Opposition and the Government, and between Front Benchers and Back Benchers. All that is now at risk and has been for a long time. We have to have that respect in ourselves back in this House; we have to believe that we can talk to Government freely and frankly. The purpose of my speech was, in part, to create a debate, rather than just to make a statement of fixed positions, because the calibration of each Member of Parliament is an important right in itself. This House must find that when dealing
with something that most of us have not experienced before: a coalition. One party of that coalition took no part in the negotiations that formed what I call the "image of gold" but what is known as the coalition agreement; no one on my side formed that, other than those who are now in the Executive. So this matter is very difficult and very sensitive, which is why people are very delicate about it. However, we are now dealing with the substance of our old constitution and the merits of that, and it is its merits that I believe are stronger than the proposals put forward by the coalition.
Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I rise to speak to amendments 7 and 8, which stand in my name and ask for triennial Parliaments. That makes me feel positively like a constitutional Trotskyite, coming forward as the blazing radical in this song and dance for a five-year or four-year term. Amendment 11, which proposes a four-year term, is perfectly acceptable as it is a good amendment. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd) quoted from Asquith's powerful and effective speech. I was going to refer to it at length, but I shall not now do so because he has given us it pretty well in full. That speech set out that in legislating for five-year terms the then Liberal Government were actually saying that the expectation would be for earlier elections, so that was to be a maximum term, not the norm. The provision before us attempts to create a norm of five years.
Austin Mitchell: If the hon. Gentleman bides his time a little, I shall deal with exactly that point. He is making the very sensible point that bad Parliaments last for five years and Governments in precarious or disastrous situations try to hang on for as long as possible. That perhaps indicates why he is not going to support this Bill: it is an indication that his Government are going to try to hang on for as long as possible-for five years.
Neil Carmichael: At least one manifesto that has come to my mind was entitled "The Next Five Years"; I believe it referred to 1959 to 1964, and so it turned out to be. So at least then the norm was five years, and there really are more normal expectations of that than meet the eye.
Austin Mitchell: Again, that was because the then Government were hanging on, as Macmillan was replaced by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. They had to hang on to the bitter end, which was October 1964, because they were disastrously placed in the polls. That is another example to support my argument, which is that bad Governments want the maximum. This Government are a bad Government and they are trying to legislate for the maximum-they are trying to set bad practice in concrete.
As I listen to the hon. Gentleman, I wonder whether cause and effect are a bit mixed up. One complaint that we have had in the past is about the Government holding an election at a time of their choice when they feel the runes are looking good for them rather than fixing the democratic process in some way so that the gerrymandering of polity and of the
climate in the country could not happen. The idea of having a fixed Parliament is exactly that. It is best fixed at four years, I think-the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is best fixed at three-but the problem in the past has been that it has been for five years and was then cut short. It is not the length of time that makes a Government bad; it is just that bad Governments run out of time but would keep going for six or seven years if they possibly could.
Austin Mitchell: I accept that point. The argument for fixed terms used to be that Governments would manipulate the economy to suit their own purposes and would go to the country when it suited them. Now Governments are so disastrously buffeted by economic circumstances that they will seek to hang on as long as possible.
The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. First, it is not necessary for the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) to wave-he simply has to stand up. Secondly, can we stay within the scope of the amendments? I think the Attlee Government might be a little wide of them.
Austin Mitchell: The second Attlee Government lasted from 1950 to 1951. However, that was an attempt to detour me and I do not want to be detoured down all the happy little roads that Government Members would rather turn us into.
I think that four years is perfectly acceptable. It would be good and I would be happy to support-indeed, I will support-that amendment. Three years would be better. It is not a downward option-it is not like the old programme that Yorkshire Television used to do, so that we go five, four, "3-2-1". I will not go as low as the Chartists' demand for annual Parliaments; I am staying at three. Around the world, a pattern can be seen-the more democratic the society and the polity, the more frequent and regular are the elections. I would put at the head of that democratic tree Australia and New Zealand, which have three-year Parliaments that work happily. I used to write about New Zealand that if there was a seizure of power by the Chinese Communists, New Zealanders would still be standing outside the polls in November of every third year ready to vote because they have the conditioned habit of voting. It is a good conditioned habit and three years is a good term.
Ian Lucas: That is the key issue for the Liberal Democrats and the Tories. They do not care whether it is a fixed Parliament or not, but it has to be five years in order to preserve their political position.
Austin Mitchell: I agree entirely. I am sorry to have interrupted my hon. Friend's intervention with the answer to the question, but that is right. This is an arrangement by two parties seeking to hang together, to bind themselves to each other and to carry on for five years. There is no system of constitutional thought or political theory-it is sheer, simple opportunism.
"It is likely that the Coalition's concern with concretising its political alliance, and having the longest period possible in which to implement its tax increases and cuts in public expenditure and then recover sufficient popularity in time for its next meeting with the electorate, has affected its judgement in this matter."
I was making the point that around the world, the most democratic polities-I gave Australia and New Zealand as the examples-have more frequent and more regular elections. The less democratic polities have longer spaces between elections-witness the French presidential system, where it was seven years, or the old British constitution when it was an oligarchical system with seven-year terms. This is an issue of basic democracy.
The measure is not an attempt to think about the constitution and to reform it along sensible lines; it is a political fix. The Government have just gone for the longest time they think they can possibly get away with. That is it. They want the coalition to be bound together, nailed together and stuck together for five years and they hope that they can do that with this measure. They are entrenching bad practice. Most Governments in this century have gone for shorter terms than sitting out the maximum. As I said earlier, it is only the bad Governments-the failing Governments-who have gone right up to the buffers. Governments who are in a mess cling on because they are deeply unpopular.
Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): On the specific point that it is always a failing Government who go the five years and cling to power until the last before leaving, I recall that the 1987 to 1992 period resulted in the same party being returned.
Austin Mitchell: I am baffled-I mentioned Governments in a mess and a Government Member stands up to tell me that the mess was bigger than I thought it was. Is that the point he is making? My point is quite simple. There are deeply unpopular Governments-Governments in such a state as this Government have reduced themselves to in six short months-who hang on to power.
Austin Mitchell: Falling behind in the polls, implementing unpopular measures, failing and visibly disagreeing with each other-is that not a description of the coalition Government at present? They have achieved that after six months. It took John Major's Government more than four years-certainly within five-to reach the state that this Government have reached in six months. That is my point. Governments in that situation normally try to hang on. The two examples that I would give are the Major Government, which went right to the buffers, and my own Labour Government this year, which should have gone to the country in 2007, when a new Prime Minister took over, but hung on hoping for better things that did not come.
Neil Carmichael: May I just say that this debate has nothing to do with changing the Prime Minister during the five years? That is not in the Bill at all. We are discussing the length of the Parliament.
Austin Mitchell: I see another detour on the route map so I shall not go down that road. I had my own proposals once for a maximum six-year term for Prime Ministers. The current Prime Minister said during the course of the election that if the Prime Minister changed, there should be an election within six months of that change-something that seems to be missing from the Bill but which may have been relevant.
The Government are trying to entrench bad practice in this Bill and our amendments-mine for a very democratic three years and amendment 11 for four years, a sensible and statesmanlike version of my democratic stirrings-are trying to stop them doing so.
Andrew Bridgen: The hon. Gentleman talked about bad practice. Does he agree that an example of the worst sort of bad practice was the farce that was the autumn of 2007 and the election that never was?
Austin Mitchell: I just said that it would have been sensible had the Labour Government gone to the country in 2007-not only because we would have won, but because it was good and it would have been right to ask for a new mandate for a new Prime Minister. The Labour Government made a mistake and in consequence they hung on too long towards the end. I cannot see that I can break down and make any more confessions in the Chamber. That is an assessment of political reality. That is what Governments who are in difficulty do-they hang on-and that is what the Bill seeks to entrench.
Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making some very good points about Governments hanging on for five years, but is not the crucial point that if all precedent and practice in this country are for four-year Governments, and four-year terms for other directly elected positions, the Government need to advance a strong case for extending the period to five years? They simply have not done that; indeed they refuse to do so. Is that not what we should consider today?
I agree absolutely, but that argument relates to amendment 11, which seeks four-year terms, whereas I am arguing for more democratic three-year terms, so I must have a more radical argument than the
statesmanlike argument that we have just heard. We should all ask ourselves where the five-year period comes from. Where have the Government plucked it from? What is the inspiration behind the Bill? Perhaps we could have some explanation of why a five-year period has been chosen. It was not in the Conservative party manifesto.
Austin Mitchell: And trains could run on time, but they do not always. If the hon. Lady had been here for the speech by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, she would have heard the answer: five-year terms are the maximum, but the expectation is that Governments will go to the country sooner. Most do go sooner because that is sensible practice, which is what the amendment seeks to install.
Mrs Laing: I am afraid that I have to disagree. There is no expectation that a Parliament should run other than for five years. In the past century, there have been some five-year and some four-year Parliaments. There is no such expectation, but there is a law and it says five years.
Austin Mitchell: It says up to five years, and the Government are seeking to make five years the compulsory length of a term, so far as they can entrench that in the constitution. Had the hon. Lady heard the preceding debate, she would have realised that, historically, most Governments have gone to the country before their five years were up.
Alec Shelbrooke: That is all very well and good, but the hon. Gentleman is overlooking the fact that, for the first time, Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, will have the power to dissolve Parliament.
Austin Mitchell: Parliament will have the power to dissolve Parliament on a two-thirds vote, I think, in this ludicrous legislation, so I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am saying that we should legislate for three-year Parliaments, which would be sensible, and I am asking where the five-year term has come from. How did it come into the heads of this Government? Did it spring fully armed from the head of the Prime Minister?
Austin Mitchell: I have taken enough interventions for the time being. I want to make a few points of my own instead of being forced to respond to questions about hypothetical situations that I have not dealt with.
The Conservative party did not mention fixed-term Parliaments in its manifesto, but we did: Labour had a fixed four-year term in its manifesto. The Liberals, insofar as they had a position-they always have a lot
of contradictory positions-had what the Deputy Leader of the House said when he was their spokesman on constitutional affairs, when he urged four-year terms. Perhaps he has had a message from the new leadership telling him to rescind his speeches from when he was the Liberals' constitutional affairs spokesman. Will he listen? I know that he is very comfortable on the Front Bench-he is built for it-but there is no need for him to change his views on this issue so radically and dramatically as he seems to have done.
So the Liberals wanted four-year terms, the Conservatives had nothing about it in their manifesto and I argue that five-year terms are too long. I agree that we should have had an election in 2007. That would have meant the Labour Government going much sooner. Why am I proposing three-year terms? The Executive always want longer terms, because they want to be in power for as long as they can and because longer terms allow more time for more mistakes and for tough measures to hit the people. There are certainly some tough measures coming from this Government, which might be why they want a five-year term. Regular and more frequent elections hand power back to the people, which is what the people want. They want us kept on a shorter leash. That is what the feeling of hostility to politics, Parliament, parties and politicians that built up last year indicated to me. Triennial elections would certainly keep us on a shorter leash because we would have to go back to the people more regularly. They are suspicious of us; they think that we are out for ourselves and they want to control us more effectively.
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is being customarily generous in giving way. Does the experience in the congressional elections in the United States not show that their two-year terms mean that members of Congress, once re-elected, are constantly considering fundraising, canvassing and campaigning for their re-election, thereby undermining the electorate's faith and trust in them?
Austin Mitchell: The US House of Representatives, which is the equivalent to our House, has a two-year term, which is very democratic, but I am proposing a three-year term, which would cause us to go back to the people much more regularly than we do now. The people want to be heard. An outstanding feature of our democracy as it has developed is the people's desire to be listened to by this place, which they so angrily asserted in 2009. It is frustrating for people to feel that we do not listen. What better way is there of consulting the people? We should do it not through polls but through regular elections, as in Australia and New Zealand, where three-year terms work very effectively.
The people want us to be accountable, and more regular elections are the best way of keeping us accountable. Elections bring a great renewal of energy and contact with the people. They are great for concentrating our role of representing them and voicing what they want in this place; they recharge the batteries. More frequent elections would make us more vulnerable, more amenable and more prepared to listen to the people because we would have to be out there every three years listening to and meeting people and persuading them in a way that is not provided for anywhere else in our system.
This House is a great hiding place: the longer we stay here between elections, the more out of touch with the people we get. They want us to be more accountable and to listen more and they want more frequent contact. We cannot dodge that responsibility or say that reasons of statesmanship or coalition politics require us to stay hiding in this place, out of touch with the people, for five years. The condition of our being here is that we need to renew that contact as regularly as possible.
I seem to have been here for so long that I could have come in with that Asquith election victory that led to reform of the House of Lords in 1910, but I began my political career by dreading elections because one has to go out and force oneself on people and they may not want that. One has to leap up to them with a handshake and a fixed grin. One has to give them one's opinions, listen to them and ask them questions-talk to them. That was a nervous ordeal for me and I was terrified, but over time I have come to like elections more and more, particularly if I win. That is another reason why I would like more frequent elections. They are a form of renewal and of contact with the real world that we do not otherwise get in this place.
Nicky Morgan (Loughborough) (Con): It is very entertaining to hear about the hon. Gentleman's campaigning techniques and fixed grin, but would three-year terms not simply promote short-termism? One thing that the electorate do not want is short-term thinking in their Governments and politicians. They want them to take the right long-term decisions for the good of the country.
Austin Mitchell: And what happens now as Governments sit in power for up to five years? They tremble at what the Daily Mail says to them about the angry middle classes, they fear what The Daily Telegraph says and they are denounced by the Daily Express. That kind of jelly-like impact is something that I want to avoid. Let us not listen to what the Daily Mail tells us the people think-let us listen to the people. Let us go back and listen to them more frequently, because their opinions are honest. They are not distorted for some party political purpose by a newspaper like the Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph, which caused my Government and cause this Government to quake. Let us listen to the people and not to those who arrogate the voice of the people for their own purposes.
Elections bring us into contact with a section of the electorate that cannot speak through the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph or the Daily Express-the deprived, the poor, the unemployed. Our job is to serve those people, and elections are a means of renewing that contact, which is difficult to maintain with the parliamentary week, the legislation before us and the burdens of this life. Elections send us out to the people-all levels, all ranks, all types of people. We are open and exposed, we are there to answer their questions and to talk to them, listen to them and discuss with them.
That is why elections should be more frequent. They are basic to the democratic process. They are not a David Dimbleby-fest, a David Butler-fest or a psephology-fest-a calculation of figures. They are a people-fest.
Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is always entertaining, and I pay tribute to the fact that on the day the Labour party lost a 22,000 majority in 1977, they returned the hon. Gentleman in Grimsby, but will he tell the House how many people in the Dog and Duck in Great Grimsby have said to him, "I won't vote for you, Mr Mitchell, because the term will be five years instead of four "?
Austin Mitchell: None, but perhaps people will not vote for a candidate because he is too old and might not last a full term. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the issue is not frequently raised, but there is a feeling, and there was at the end of the previous Government and at the end of the Major Government, that the Government have gone on too long. That is what I want to avoid.
There is a feeling among the public that they want us to go back to them more frequently. They want to meet us more frequently. They want us out there in the streets, canvassing more frequently. That is why I say that more frequent and regular elections are basic to democracy. They put the people in power and they make the politicians prostrate before the people. The people can tell us what they want, and that is what it is all about.
The role of the House, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, is to hold power to account-to hold the Executive to account. We do not do it very well because, with a party majority, the Executive and the Prime Minister drive a steamroller through the House. Mrs Thatcher would shout down at us "Get out of the way," and we would tremble. With John Major, the steamroller wandered all over the place, but the Executive are still powerful.
The only real way of holding power to account in this country is to put it before the people more regularly in triennial elections and give them the power to throw the rascals out-give them that choice every three years. That is basic to democracy.
Mr Shepherd: And does not the Front Bench demonstrate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making? There is not one Cabinet Minister in attendance on an issue of constitutional principle. There is no one arguing or representing the Administration in a proper sense on a major Bill. As he well knows, I respect the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), but the point is made.
Austin Mitchell: I accept that point from my hon. Friend. It is a shame that even the Deputy Leader of the House has gone out to check whether he supported four years when he was a constitutional affairs spokesman-or was it three and a half? He is probably on his BlackBerry now, checking the figures. It is demonstrably wrong that a Government should propose to the House a basic alteration to the constitution, which has enormous constitutional repercussions and which has not been discussed or properly assessed or pre-digested, force it though by a party majority, and not bother to attend the debates to speak in favour of it.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly outlined the need for the democratic process to operate over a three, four or five-year period, but does he agree that there is something wrong with such a Bill coming before
Westminster without consultation with the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament to have their view on the process, so that we can all have a democratic say about what happens?
Austin Mitchell: I agree absolutely. That is the best indication that this is a constitutional fix, a coalition deal, a rather squalid political manoeuvre, rather than a matter that can be discussed and presented to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and discussed with the legislatures there, because it has repercussions for them as it does for us.
I had better come to a conclusion. The conclusion is simple: three-year Parliaments would give the people the power that they need and want not only to keep us accountable, but to throw the rascals out-throw out the Government if they do not like them-every three years. I hope it is a power that they can exercise sooner than May 2015 on the present lot.
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): I shall make a short contribution. I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) for a four-year term. I am not quite so enamoured with the idea of three years, and I shall say something about that in a moment.
However, I could not agree with the manner and the tone of some of the contributions in the past hour or two from the Opposition Benches. Silly comments about Con-Dem Governments, political posturing and so on are not helpful to an important debate about the constitution of this country. I do not believe for one moment that any kind of dodgy, underhand dealing is going on.
It is important to remember that the subject of the Bill is not one that electrifies the public. We are all in agreement about that. In the Dog and Duck they do not talk about it. In my village the pub is well known-the Percy Arms-and the topic does not come up a great deal there. It is not something that people are talking about or that is tripping off people's tongues, but that does not mean it is not important. It should be debated properly. Perhaps that is a partial response to the right hon. Lady's point.
I have been staggered by some of the comments by Opposition Members-the feigned outrage about a five-year term. Many of them were in the previous Government over the last five years- [Interruption.] Sadly, the country knows what it was like as well. I want a four-year term because the experience of the last Government, and perhaps earlier Governments, shows that a five-year term is not necessarily in the best interests of the country. Governments generally expect to go to four years, although there is no requirement for them to do so. When they have run to five years, it is usually because they have known that they were about to be
booted out by the electorate. We thus end up with a year of incredibly poor decision making, and this Government have to deal with the consequences of the appalling decisions taken in the last year of the Brown Government.
Alec Shelbrooke: On my hon. Friend's point about Governments campaigning in the last year, one of the things that I find most disturbing is the premise that in a five-year Parliament, Members take no notice of their constituents until the last year. That may explain why the majority of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) fell to just 714.
Andrew Percy: I hope that politicians on all sides take notice of their electorate at all times. The problem with going to a three-year term is that they may take less notice of their constituents and a great deal more notice of the newspapers. Given that Governments tend to be most responsive to newspapers in the last year or six months before an election, the risk with a three-year term is that the Government would be beholden to the newspapers and chasing headlines for the entire term of office.
On the clash of elections, I have sympathy with those representing countries with devolved Assemblies. I would not want a Welsh Assembly election or a Scottish Parliament election on the same day as a general election, but it is a bit inconsistent for some on the Opposition Benches to suggest that a clash of elections is always bad news, because they deliberately arranged for that by holding European and local government elections on the same day, using two different voting systems. However, that is best avoided. I accept that the case for a general election is a little different and that a general election should be held separately from the elections in the devolved regions.
I have no academic or study to quote on the four-year term; I just feel in my gut that it is the right length of time for a Government. A four-year term is better because it would fit with local government elections and devolved assemblies. The Canadian Government changed from five to four years a couple of years ago, and we have heard about the three-year terms that exist in Australia and New Zealand. For me, four years would be a more appropriate term for us to be in office. There is an acceptance that after being in power for five years, we tend to be a little too detached from the electorate, and consequently end up making bad decisions. However, I cannot support the three-year term proposed by my near neighbour, next door but one, in Great Grimsby. That would throw us into a perpetual state of elections. It is often said about US congressional elections that American Congressmen are in a perpetual state of election, which is why they have so many earmarks and pork barrelling; they have no sooner got themselves to Washington DC than they have to run back to their electorates to try to gain election.
Mr Stewart Jackson:
My hon. Friend refers to the American political system and reiterates my earlier point, but is it not true that at the other end of the scale US Senators, who have a six-year term, can take a broader view of both national and international issues? Very few people say to an experienced American Senator
that they are past it or clapped out, or not thinking of the good of the country because they are in their fifth or sixth year.
Andrew Percy: The problem with the American Senator term is that a third of the Senate is elected every two years, which means that they, too, are in a perpetual state of elections, so that idea does not carry over completely.
The other experience of more regular elections is that there tends to be a greater propensity on the part of the electorate to re-elect their incumbents. As I am now an incumbent, that is not necessarily something that I would take issue with. I suspect that all hon. Members would be happy to see incumbents re-elected- [ Interruption. ] Well, yes, perhaps their own incumbency re-elected. I was particularly intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that elections offer the opportunity for politicians to recharge their batteries. That is certainly not an experience I have ever had in an election campaign.
Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): Are not comparisons with the Congressional elections inappropriate, because Congressmen, by and large, manage to insulate themselves from the electorate because they do not have independent boundary commissions but negotiate their constituency boundaries so that 85% of the seats are safe? Therefore, there is no real comparison; when they go to face the electorate most of those Congressmen know they are going back.
Andrew Percy: I was involved in that in New Jersey in 2000. Such matters were determined on a state-by-state basis and depended very much on who was in control in that state. It is not quite the case that Congressmen themselves are busy dividing up their own seats, but there are examples where that happens.
I conclude where I started. For me, a four-year term feels more natural. As I said, I have no academic support for this argument. To go to the electorate every four years, which fits in properly with the elections in Scotland and Wales, feels the right thing to do. I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendments and I look forward to the comments of Opposition Members who, having enjoyed a five-year term, now seek to criticise the Government for seeking to continue them.
Chris Bryant: I congratulate the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) on advancing his amendment before I got to the Table Office when I would have tabled exactly the same amendment. His alacrity is in the interest of the whole House, and he is right to have tabled his amendments, as I hope to lay out.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr Shepherd), who always speaks with an independence of mind, which compliments both the House and his electors. He is right that this is about the entrenchment of Government. This measure is not proposed because there has been some grand constitutional convention that has consulted the country about the appropriate length of the Parliament and has consulted academics or voters; it is simply here to entrench this Government at least until May 2015. That is primarily why it exists. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole
(Andrew Percy) said that he felt-I was not sure whether he said in his waters or in his guts-that four years was better than five, and he is absolutely right. If one looks at the contributions made by most constitutional experts, as the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked us to do, all have said that four years is a better term than five. It is also right to say that the process that has been gone through for the Bill is inappropriate.
The Government have often said that in the first Session of a Parliament it is difficult to consult on Bills, because Parliament suddenly needs something to discuss. My argument would be that that is not the time to bring forward constitutional Bills. There may be legislation on other matters which has been well adumbrated in manifestos and well discussed, but it is wholly inappropriate to proceed with constitutional Bills without pre-legislative scrutiny and some attempt to bind together all the political parties so that there is an agreement that this is not just a settlement for one Parliament or for five or six years, but one that will stand the test of time and last several decades.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) said that this is a good idea because it will prevent the Prime Minister from being able to choose the date of the election. That is not true. The Bill makes it clear that the Prime Minister will always choose the actual date of a general election. It is perfectly possible for the Prime Minister to make sure that there will be a general election, as laid out in clauses 1 and 2, because Prime Ministers can, if they wish, engineer a vote of no confidence, precisely as happened in Germany in 1982 under Chancellor Kohl, and in 2005 under Chancellor Schröder. There is no reason why a Prime Minister should not choose to do that.
Neil Carmichael: Surely those points ram home the argument that five years is a good spell, because the hon. Gentleman has just admitted that from time to time we could break it and have an election earlier, but the norm would still be five years.
Chris Bryant: I will come on to why I think five years is an inappropriate length of time. However, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. I will admit lots of things in this speech, but I will not admit what he has just told me to admit.
My argument is essentially that four years is a better term for a fixed Parliament than five years. A five-year legislative provision for a maximum length of a Parliament has served us not too badly and may well be okay, not least because it has meant in practical terms that Parliaments have tended to be more like four years, precisely as Asquith intended in 1911. But a fixed five-year term is overlong, and the main reason why we have that is that the Government want to continue until May 2015, which is an inappropriate use of constitutional reform.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole said that he was absolutely certain that there could not have been any underhand skulduggery. I think he was using irony, if not sarcasm, and irony does not always translate perfectly into Hansard. His Dog and Duck test is right. The vast majority of voters are not obsessed with the length of a Parliament, but they do know when a
Parliament has had its day, and for the most part, by the time we get to four years in this country, certainly since the second world war, most electorates have started to say, "You know what, it's time we had a general election."
Alec Shelbrooke: First, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that there is no reason right now why this Parliament will not go to May 2015-it is perhaps just wishful thinking on the Opposition Benches-and, secondly, will he confirm whether his party supports fixed-term Parliaments?
Chris Bryant: Yes, I was just about to come on to the point that I wholeheartedly agree with fixed-term Parliaments. It was wrong for Conservative, Labour and, for that matter in the past, Liberal, Whig and any other kind of Government to be able either to cut and run, as the Deputy Leader of the House said in a sedentary comment earlier, or to choose to hang on until something comes along. It is better to have a fixed term.
Interestingly, in 1950, Stafford Cripps-your predecessor, Ms Primarolo, by I do not know how many-argued forcefully to Clement Attlee that there should be a general election before a Budget, because, if the election were held after, it would look as if the Government were trying to bribe the electorate, which would be wholly inappropriate.
The point is surely that it should not be within the power of the Government to determine the rules. It is like the situation in which everybody is running a 100 metre race, but the starting gun is held by the person in charge, and sometimes he decides to shoot some of the runners instead of just starting the race.
Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I agree that constituents reach the point at which they feel that the Government need to change, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is often in part because constituents are desperate for the Prime Minister of the day to announce a general election? Having such certainty to a reasonable extent will therefore obviate the need for constituents to wonder, "When is the election going to happen? When is the date? It can't happen soon enough." That certainty will surely improve the situation.
Chris Bryant: Yes, of course. The hon. Lady is right in the sense that constituents will not have to worry about the date of the election. In fact, newspapers and the BBC will have to employ considerably fewer journalists, because they will know the date of the general election and actually have to obsess about something else. However, the past 50 years have shown that, for the most part, once a Parliament has run for more than four years, either the Parliament itself is so fed up with the Prime Minister that it chooses to change the Prime Minister before holding a subsequent general election, or the country is becoming pretty fed up.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, really, this is not a fixed-term Parliament Bill at all? I mean not to criticise but to ask him a question, because,
contrary to what he says, the Government do not make all the rules, the House of Commons does. If the House decided to go for a confidence motion because it happened to be fed up with the Government in question, as it did over Maastricht, we could end up with the situation in which the Government lost control. Then there would be a general election, and there would be no fixed term at all.
Chris Bryant: That is right, but that is a point in relation to clause 2 and at the moment we are dealing with clause 1. [ Interruption. ] At the moment we are talking about clause 1. In fact, the Bill is not really a fixed-term Parliaments Bill, because it does not determine how many days it should sit within those five years; it is a fixed-term elections Bill: it determines when elections shall be. There are things that we need to change in relation to Prorogation and so on, and we shall come on to that at another point in the debate, but, for the most part in this country, after four years and often before, the mandate on which the Government were elected becomes pretty thin, and they start doing things-sometimes pretty unpopular things-that were not clearly outlined in their manifesto. The party or parties might have made all sorts of commitments before they went into government, but events come along or the Government suddenly discover things that mean they have to break those manifesto promises or commitments, and the longer that a Government go on after four years, if they do so, the more likely they are to undermine respect for Parliament.
Alec Shelbrooke: The hon. Gentleman, in his outrage, is almost saying that we are attempting to increase the length of a Parliament, but we could go to May 2015 as things stand in statute today. That does not involve extending the length of this Parliament. His other point is that Parliaments can run out of steam over five years, but that has been the problem of previous Governments, because they have governed in the short term, rather than for the long term and for the good of the country.
Chris Bryant: That is where there is a need for a balancing act, and that is why I do not support a three-year Parliament, which my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Austin Mitchell) advocates, or a five-year Parliament. I support a four-year Parliament, which in most constitutions throughout the world seems to be the period at which people have arrived. The Government would have at least three good Sessions in which they could advance their legislative cause, and if they wanted to do difficult things in the first and second years but retain their ability to recover their position in time for an election after four years, they would be able to do so.
One of the other things that happens in government itself is that, after four years, a lot of people become pretty tired. That was certainly true in the previous Parliament, in John Major's Government and in Baroness Thatcher's Government, and, because of that concatenation of tired people, many more ex-Ministers no longer have an investment in the future and do not intend to stand at the next general election, so in practice attendance in the House is much lower during the last year of a five-year Parliament than in the preceding years.
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