The role and powers of the Prime Minister: The impact of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 on Government - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

The impact of Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 on Government

Background to the inquiry

1. In 2010, the Government pledged to establish fixed five-year Parliamentary terms, as part of its commitment to political reform in The Coalition: Our Programme for Government. We reported on the constitutional implications of this move in our 2010 Report, Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.[1] Professor Robert Hazell, of University College London, described the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 as "a very significant surrender of prime ministerial power."[2]

2. As part of our inquiry into The role and powers of the Prime Minister, we have been exploring the impact of the 2011 Act. We are particularly interested in the practical implications of the shift to fixed terms on Departmental planning. This report represents our findings to date. We will continue to explore prerogative powers as part of our wider inquiry.

3. We decided to hold a one-off evidence session on this issue as we think that half-way through the first fixed term provides a good opportunity to reflect on the impact of the 2011 Act, and, moreover, to ensure that Departments make the most of the potential planning benefits fixed terms bring. We have focused only on the impact on Government in this Report, and have not considered the impact of fixed terms on Parliament itself.

4. On 18 December 2012, we wrote to the Permanent Secretaries of central Government Departments to request written evidence on the impact of the 2011 Act. A copy of our letter, along with the 17 replies from Permanent Secretaries, can be found on our website. The National Audit Office assisted us in analysing the responses we received. The Chair has also held meetings with Permanent Secretaries of central Government Departments, to assist us with our inquiry. We also took oral evidence from the Rt Hon Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government and Ms Chloe Smith MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, Cabinet Office. We are grateful to all those who contributed to this part of our inquiry.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

5. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act came into force in September 2011 and provides for the next general election to take place on 7 May 2015 and thereafter for general elections to be held every five years on the first Thursday in May.

6. The Act provides for two cases in which an election would be triggered, other than at five-year intervals:

  • either, a motion of no confidence in the Government is passed, by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed;
  • or a motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of Members in the House of Commons (currently 434 out of 650) including vacant seats.

7. Section 7 of the 2011 Act provides for the Act to be revisited in 2020: it requires the Prime Minister to establish a committee, to carry out a review of the operation of the Act and make any recommendations for repeal or amendment as required.

Emerging Benefits

8. Overwhelmingly, the written evidence we received from Departments welcomed the move to fixed terms: many responses cited the fact that a fixed term provided a platform of greater certainty for legislative, strategic and financial planning. The most commonly cited advantages of fixed terms were:

  • the potential to reduce uncertainty and instability;
  • a clear timetable for the next general election;
  • more effective forecasting;
  • ability to prioritise more effectively;
  • ability to allocate key staff in accordance with the policy priorities;
  • a sense of direction from the outset;
  • greater consistency and clarity of strategy.


9. According to the evidence we received, the main benefit of the 2011 Act for Departments is the greater certainty it brings to the legislative process: primary legislation can be planned more efficiently because the time available for the passage of bills is more predictable. In particular, there is greater certainty that the fourth and fifth sessions of a Parliament will run their full-length, and less risk of bills being lost in the process known as the "wash-up", which is the period between the announcement of a general election and the dissolution of Parliament, when all the unfinished business must be dealt with very quickly, and bills are often shortened or lost altogether.

10. The Department for Transport explained the impact of fixed-terms with reference to a historical example:

    A Road Safety Bill was introduced into the Commons in November 2004, before moving to the Lords in March 2005. The consequence of the dissolution of Parliament ahead of the June 2005 election was that the Bill was lost in its entirety. It was reintroduced after the election but at the time of dissolution there was no certainty that this would happen…and of, course, the implementation of the Bill was delayed. Additionally, having to take the Bill forward twice was not an efficient use of Departmental resources. If the [Fixed-term Parliaments] Act had been in force at the time, it would have been more likely that there would have been sufficient time for the Road Safety Bill to have become law first time around.[3]

The ability to plan into a fourth and fifth parliamentary session with "neutrality" was a point echoed by the Department for Education[4], the Home Office[5] and the Cabinet Office.[6]


11. Many Departments cited the potential for greater consistency and clarity of strategy as a positive effect of the 2011 Act. The ability to plan priorities in the context of a fixed five-year term enables Departments not only to set a sense of direction from the outset, but to be reasonably confident that they will have time to follow their strategy through.

12. The Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform explained that fixed terms enabled the rollout of certain strategic initiatives within the Cabinet Office itself:

    Something I am taking forwards is the use of management information across Government. Francis Maude and I have taken the view that we have five years in which to get this piece of work bedded in. It is my view that it is this kind of work that ought never to be reversed. There is no good reason for not having good management information…across Government….but we know very clearly that we have an initial period …in which to get a good system bedded in.[7]

13. Six Departments referred to departmental business plans in their written evidence as a useful planning exercise, enabling policy priorities and structural reform to take account of the fixed Parliamentary term. In particular, the Ministry of Justice stated that the introduction of the 2011-15 business plans had supported its strategic vision, which in turn had assisted forward looking delivery plans.[8]

14. The Department of Health emphasised that the timetable provided by the 2011 Act would "allow for more effective planning and deployment of resources, especially to support the election process,"[9] both before and after a general election. This would enable the Department "to plan the establishment of a team to coordinate election briefing within a more specific timeframe."[10] The ability to look ahead and staff accordingly was stated as being particularly important to Departments with as wide-ranging and complex a remit as Health.[11]


15. Departments also referred to the changes in their financial planning brought about by fixed terms. The Treasury explained that the annual Finance Bill and Supplementary Estimate process "have been altered to take account of the move to fixed-term Parliaments, giving the Department further certainty around the Budget and spending rounds."[12]

16. Whilst the general view of many Departments was that the October 2010 Spending Review, which covered the period up until 2014-15, had increased clarity and allowed more effective planning, the Department for Education suggested that Spending Reviews should be more closely aligned with fixed-term Parliaments so as to provide even greater certainty:

    Financial planning plays a central role in departmental planning, and our current sense is that the fixed term has been helpful in decisions about committing money and entering into contracts, for example. For the planning benefits of a fixed term to be realised more fully, however, the spending cycle might need to be aligned to a similar timetable. With the current Spending Review plans ending in 2014-15 this has necessitated a one-year "mini" spending review to agree budgets for the financial year beginning just before the end of this current term.[13]

17. Peter Riddell was sceptical about the possibility of aligning the Spending Review more closely with the fixed term at a time when there was a Coalition Government:

    I think it is the existence of the Coalition that has made the spending issues more difficult, not the fixed-term Parliament as such. If we had had a majority Government, we would have had a full-scale spending review this year, stretching ahead to the first two to three years of the next Parliament rather than a one-year one. It is perfectly and absolutely understandable why it is only one year because of the politics of it.[14]

18. Financial planning is the bedrock of long-term Departmental planning; without a clear indication of spending plans, short-termism in delivery and policy formulation is bound to prevail. We call on the Government to produce a rolling five-year Spending Review, which is aligned more tightly to the fixed term, so that Departments can plan as effectively as possible.

19. When he gave evidence to us on 24 January 2012, in connection with another inquiry, the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, told us that he would put on the agenda for discussion at one of the weekly meetings of Permanent Secretaries the issue of the impact of the 2011 Act on departmental planning and stability, stating that it "would be a good subject to discuss, to get different Departments' perspectives on it."[15] We wrote to Sir Jeremy on 22 May to inquire about the results of this discussion and have not yet received a reply.

20. It is too early to provide a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, as several Departments and the Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform emphasised in their evidence to us. Nonetheless, it is clear that the greater certainty about the date of the next general election that the Act provides facilitates better strategic, financial and, above all, legislative planning by Departments. It is early days, but we are keen that Departments maximise these benefits and share best practice with one another.

21. We recommend that, at six monthly intervals, the impact of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 on Departmental planning be added as an agenda item for discussion at the meetings of Permanent Secretaries, in order to provide an opportunity to share best practice. We ask the Cabinet Secretary to keep us informed of the date of his next meeting with the Permanent Secretaries and look forward to hearing the outcomes of that discussion.


22. Departments were, on the whole, consistent in their analysis of fixed terms: the Act has enabled them to formulate their legislative, strategic and financial plans with a greater degree of certainty. The clearer timetable for the next general election also has benefits for the Government itself in terms of political planning.

23. Peter Riddell said that the move to fixed terms had removed a layer of speculation and political pressure, as the political parties, the general public and the media now have greater certainty about the timetable for the next general election as provided for in the 2011 Act.[16] However, Peter Riddell was also clear that fixed terms alone could not eliminate all uncertainty, and that "speculation over leadership changes, speculation over reshuffles...[remain] the same as ever."[17]

24. The Department for Education also singled out ministerial reshuffles as a key element of administrative uncertainty.[18] The Permanent Secretary for the Department for Education, in particular, stated a preference for a single reshuffle:

    I would suggest that having a single Ministerial reshuffle at the mid-term point of the parliament also seems to have brought some benefits from the perspective of departmental planning.[19]

25. This was echoed by the Department of Health:

    In some cases a reshuffle may have more of an effect on a department than an election. The provisions of the Act do not make arrangements for changes to this internal reorganising (such as fixed-term contracts for ministers) and so reshuffles will continue to have the potential for impact on business within the cycle. [20]

Those conclusions align with our own analysis of ministerial reshuffles, in our previous Report, The impact and effectiveness of ministerial reshuffles.[21]

26. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has provided Departments with a clearer electoral timetable, which in turn facilitates greater certainty when it comes to planning. It has also removed some political speculation, allowing Ministers and officials to focus on delivery of policy rather than short-term survival. This will also allow the Prime Minister to plan with more certainty and this should have beneficial consequences in reducing disruptive reshuffles.

27. We restate the conclusions and recommendations made in our previous Report, "The impact and effectiveness of ministerial reshuffles", and encourage the Prime Minister and his successors to improve the planning of Ministerial terms.

Beyond Government

28. Peter Riddell commented that too much of the debate on fixed terms had centred on Government and Parliament, and that "one of the key what is the impact [of the Act] on...constituents, both individually and business, unions, councils."[22] The Minister also emphasised the broader reach of the 2011 Act, by highlighting the benefits of fixed terms for electoral administration. She said that electoral registration, timetabling for postal and overseas votes and oversight of elections all benefitted from being brought into a fixed cycle.[23] We are pleased to note that the 2011 Act has made planning easier not only for Government and Parliament, but for those whose work is to a greater or lesser extent determined by these institutions, such as electoral administrators.

Other factors


29. Some evidence we received stated that it is not always possible, or desirable, to tie the work of Departments too closely with a fixed term. The Ministry of Defence stressed that some of its work, particularly on the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), cannot always be tied to the lifetime of a Parliament:

    We may need to guard against frequent NSS and SDSRs being tied too closely to the electoral cycle, which could result in a rushed process. In addition, the important interactions and dependences between the NSS, SDSR and Comprehensive Spending Review are acknowledged, but the choreography required to align the overall strategy and resource needs may not always be straightforward.[24]

The Minister and Peter Riddell commented that this also applied to other Departments with longer-term policy horizons, particularly on issues relating to defence procurement,[25] infrastructure projects,[26] foreign policy,[27] energy policy[28] and climate change.[29]

30. We note the evidence we have received which suggests that there are some aspects of Departments' work that should not be aligned too closely to the electoral cycle. Policy areas such as defence, foreign affairs and energy have a much longer-term planning horizon. Alignment should not be an end itself; it should be attempted only if there are clear benefits.

31. At their regular meetings, the Permanent Secretaries should identify areas of policy or planning where greater alignment with the fixed parliamentary term would be beneficial.


32. We received some evidence to suggest that the impact of the 2011 Act could not be separated from the political reality of the Coalition Government. Peter Riddell stated:

    You cannot separate the Coalition from the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. Political scientists would love to have to have two experiments: one with a single party Government and one with a coalition. I think some phenomena we are seeing now are to do with the Coalition. It might be very different in a majority Parliament.[30]

33. Peter Riddell further argued that the fact there was a Coalition had diminished the potential impact of fixed terms, because questions of planning and priorities would be subject to negotiation and partnership:

    I think the only benefit of the existence of the five-year Parliament is that it provides a clearer framework in which you can operate. You know when you are going to face the voters, both individually and collectively, so that enables your own planning to be a bit easier. As I say, there are countervailing factors that complicate it. It is a wonderful thing other things being equal, but they are not. We operate with a Coalition and that fundamentally alters a lot of the equation. On the whole, I think it is a plus but I don't think one should exaggerate the plus.[31]

His view is that a single-party Government with a majority would be much better placed to take advantage of the fixed term, particularly in respect of planning a full fifth legislative session in Parliament.[32]

34. We appreciate that the impact of fixed terms is currently difficult to separate from the impact of Coalition Government. There may be further benefits to fixed terms under a single-party Government. However, we do think there is still scope to monitor, evaluate and embed best practice into the Departmental planning processes.

Next steps

35. There is clearly potential for Departments to share knowledge and explore the opportunities available for longer-term planning. Given that we are just over half-way through the first fixed term, we think it would be timely to hold a seminar, to explore those opportunities. We are grateful to Peter Riddell for expressing an interest in assisting us in this respect, and look forward to working with the Institute for Government on this issue.

1   HC 436 Back

2   Q 82 Back

3   Ev w1  Back

4   Ev w6 Back

5   Ev w5 Back

6   Ev w4 Back

7   Q 244 Back

8   Ev w4 Back

9   Ev w2 Back

10   Ev w2 Back

11   Ev w2 Back

12   Ev w3 Back

13   Ev w6 Back

14   Q 219 Back

15   HC 707-v, Q 312 Back

16   Q 236 Back

17   Q 235 Back

18   Ev w2 Back

19   Ev w2 Back

20   Ev w2 Back

21   HC 255 Back

22   Q 209 Back

23   Q 289 Back

24   Ev w1 Back

25   Q 227 Back

26   Q 265 Back

27   Q 213 Back

28   Q 265 Back

29   Q 213 Back

30   Q 209 Back

31   Q 226 Back

32   Q 229 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 25 July 2013