Fixed Term Parliaments

23rd October 2014

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Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): I am delighted that we can now come on to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 debate, and I am pleased to open the proceedings on that discussion. I want people to watch our proceedings in Parliament, but, privately, I hope that they are doing other things—perhaps going out with their families—because sometimes we can be incredibly embarrassing in this House. It was only three or four weeks ago that the Union nearly fell apart. I am glad that the numbers were what they were at the end, but there was a moment when all of us thought that the Union—the United Kingdom—would be split asunder. It may still do so if we do not deliver properly on the package.

One would think that everything in the garden was rosy, apart from the fact that some would like to revert to those great old days that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) described. I am talking about those days when we had an empire, homosexuality was illegal, we could slaughter people around the globe, we always had a Prime Minister who told us what to do, and we could go hunting, shooting and fishing in the right seasons. Those were the days indeed. Of course there are many colleagues who long for that degree of exclusivity and privacy, but there are some of us for whom times have changed. We believe that we must do better, and that joining the family of democratic nations in having the people know when a general election is to take place and when the Executive can be replaced is one of the hallmarks of a modern democracy. We are not yet there, but we have made progress in some areas in recent years. One such area is having a fixed-term Parliament.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known for many years, that this idea that somehow this Parliament, rather than the Executive, is the creature that runs the nation is the fundamental misapprehension and fundamental flaw in his argument; it is mythology. This is not the Executive. This is not even a body that effectively holds the Executive to account, so to say that things should go back to the way they were does not alter some of those truths, which we all need to consider as parliamentarians first and foremost and as members of the Executive, members who want to be in the Executive, and members who have been in the Executive. That so-called truth is a mythology, and I hope that during this debate we can explore why having a fixed term—having some openness about how long a Parliament

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or a Government is—will be one of the things that lead people outside to say that at least it looks like we are getting it.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I share some of the hon. Gentleman’s concern at the lamentable way in which Parliament fails to hold the Executive—of whatever Government—to account. Obviously, he supports the notion of a fixed-term Parliament, but does he think that it is right that the Act ensures that that cannot be changed? The Act reinforces this whole push towards coalition Government almost irrespective of public wishes because there has to be a two-thirds majority for getting rid of the measure. Does he not think that an old-fashioned straight majority would have been the correct way for a fixed-term Parliament to operate?

Mr Allen: Sadly, one cannot always bring about democratic change through a rational process; it is often a matter of seizing opportunities. In this case a coalition Government came together and it was helpful—there is no question about this—to have a fixed term, because otherwise there would have been votes of censure and the Government could have fallen at any moment over the past four and a half years.

This might sound strange coming from the Opposition Benches, but I must say that I think history will judge the coalition, however painful and bruising it might have been for the partners, to have governed, or at least administered, in a way that will have surprised many people, particularly if we think back to 2010. There are wounds and difficulties, of course, and I do not seek to underplay them, but a coalition was formed and governance in this country, much to my regret at one level, has continued, one could argue, in a relatively civilized way.

We are where we are, and it would not be democratic to take the power away from Parliament and restore a power that allows a Prime Minister alone to decide the date of a general election. It is yet another strong Executive power that this House should stand up and say should not be restored. There are other Executive powers in this highly centralised democracy that we should be looking to next to ensure that they are made properly democratic, or at least that Governments are held to account for their use.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Allen: I will give way first to my distinguished colleague from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee.

Mr Chope: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the argument is essentially between those who believe in rigidity, as he does, and those of us on the Government Benches who believe in flexibility? In a sense, is not that illustrated by what happened in Scotland? Had the Scots voted to leave the Union, the Prime Minister would surely have been required to call a general election, but the Fixed-term Parliaments Act would have prevented him from having that discretion.

Mr Allen: The hon. Gentleman is known for being a rather floppy and flexible individual, and perhaps I am renowned for being inflexible in the multitude of

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compromises I have attempted to make over my political career to secure at least some small reforms in our democracy.

Mr Bone: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech, as usual. He is right to say that this is a restriction on the power of the Executive, but I think that he is slightly wrong to say that in this Parliament power has not become more centralised. I think his book was called “The First President” or “President Blair” or something along those lines. Surely he thinks that guillotining and the Whips Offices are doing much more to give power to the Executive than a fixed-term Parliament.

Mr Allen: I am not saying that it is the fixed term that has helped create a lively Parliament; it is Members of Parliament who have done that, by carving out a niche and exploiting the difficulties of coalition Government, and more credit to them for doing so. However, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, who is foremost among those pushing back the envelope—I congratulate him on that—that what the Executive giveth, the Executive can take away. Were we to return to a one-party Government, of whichever party, I guarantee that they would seek to roll back some of the gains that he and just about every colleague in the Chamber today have played a part in securing, bringing greater responsibility to Parliament. I warn colleagues here today that the tide will go out very rapidly indeed. We now have, for the first time in parliamentary history, Select Committee Chairs elected by secret ballot and by the whole House, as in my case, and that could easily become a thing of the past. In a one-party Government, the Prime Minister would instruct people to clamp down on dissent and nonconformity.

Similarly, colleagues elected to Select Committees by secret ballot and by party, such as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), could be under threat. Difficult and awkward customers of the sort I revel in dealing with in my Committee, many of whom are in the Chamber today, will be the first casualties. I say that not because I am trying to scare them, but because I used to be in the Whips Office and had to take Members out of Select Committees and try to get compliant Chairs elected. Sadly, I have been there, done that—I am the gamekeeper turned poacher, and possibly turned gamekeeper again.

The idea that we have cracked it and that we now have a Parliament that in a one-party Government will be as frisky as this one is misleading. We have to protect the small gains we have made in recent years and build upon them, rather than regressing to the good old days when we used to allow Prime Ministers the unprecedented power in a democracy of deciding the date of an election.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the power of the Executive. Does he agree that the constitution should be established in the best interests not of the Prime Minister, but of the country as a whole, particularly in circumstances in which we are having to borrow a lot of money on the money markets to fund the deficit, which means the stability that arises from the Prime Minister not having the power to call an election anytime he feels like it is in the interests of the country as a whole?

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Mr Allen: The hon. Gentleman, who speaks from the Liberal Democrat Benches, would have been terribly blackguarded by his coalition partners in the debate this morning. He is making up for that and makes some intelligent points with which I wholly agree.

What I think the people outside this place listening to the debate would find incredibly difficult is the idea that, as the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) said before leaving his place, we would not apply this to the devolved Administrations. We would not say to those who run Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, “Just have an election whenever you feel like it, for whatever purpose. We’ll happily give you that Executive power.” We have Executive power in No. 10 Downing street, and very rarely is it given away. It was not given away lightly, but on this occasion it was given away on calculation. We must retain it so that Parliament has at least some leverage and certainty so that it can fulfil its duty of holding Governments to account.

It is similar to the situation in local government. Imagine the leader of a council having the power to decide when local government elections take place. Consider the idea that the President of the United States could wake up one morning and say, “There’s some bad economic news coming down the tube in six months’ time, so I’m going to go for a snap election.” The President would then face prison or incarceration, because that would be unconstitutional and illegal. I suspect that the straitjacket would be the option of first resort were that to happen, whether in the US, France or any of our fellow democracies who figured this out a long time ago. Montesquieu figured it out in the 18th century when he wrote about the separation of powers. Given the flexibility we have created for ourselves in this House, perhaps we will come to that conclusion in the not-too-distant future.

Kevin Brennan: I caution against being too obsessed with the American system, because it is held in very low regard by American voters, largely because of the amount of money involved in their politics, and one of the reasons for that is the frequency of elections to the House of Representatives and the resulting gridlock. Does my hon. Friend agree that choosing a period of five years, which was done for the convenience of the Executive, whether a coalition or not, is far too long, not least given that the average length of Parliaments in the last century was three years and 10 months? Should not we go to four years, which would also stop the clashes with the devolved Administrations?

Mr Allen: We should of course be very careful about taking the American example lock, stock and barrel, although we should learn from other democracies. I also think that my hon. Friend should be a little careful about discussing the low regard in which politicians are held in America. Many people will have been watching the debate today with incredulity, given the way in which some Members spoke a little earlier.

As for whether the period should be four years or five, it is the first time that we have gone through this process. My anxiety relates only to practical politics. I fear that if the question of the period were opened up for review, some Members from whom we have heard today would seize the opportunity to hand power back, rather fawningly, to No. 10 Downing street. One wonders

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whether there would be as much enthusiasm for that if the Prime Minister were a member of a different political party from that of the mover of the motion.

Mr Andrew Turner rose—

Mr Allen: I give way to my very distinguished Select Committee colleague.

Mr Turner: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could assist me by explaining what would happen if, for instance, we had lost the referendum in Scotland. In those circumstances, would there not have been an obligation to step up to the public and say “I have failed, so someone else must take over”, and would it not be a bad thing if everyone were simply moved along one step and the job were put it in the hands of another person, with no election?

Mr Allen: The hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case. In fact, he has unwittingly made a powerful case for a written constitution, which would prevent that from happening. What we have, however, is a convention, and, like it or not, conventions mean what the Executive say—rather than, as we are finding now in relation to going to war in Syria, creeping something through the House and reinventing the convention. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister of the day would probably find, in giving way, that the Deputy would be appointed from within the coalition or from within the individual party. The only way of putting a stop to that is to have clarity, so that everyone watching at home has the rule book, the boxing rules, as it were. I am not referring to the fighters in the ring, but there should be a framework that we can all understand, and I am afraid that that is not the case.

Ultimately, even under the current legislation, it would be possible to dissolve Parliament if a vote expressing a lack of confidence in the existing Government were carried by two thirds. After 14 days, there would be a general election. However, those are extraordinary circumstances. We are trying to build a democracy in which everyone out there knows the rules.

Sir Edward Leigh: May I repeat the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)? We are not going to convince the hon. Gentleman in regard to fixed-term Parliaments, but will he at least acknowledge that if we had had a proper national debate on the issue, we would obviously have decided on a four-year term, as in the case of the American presidency, rather than a five-year term?

Mr Allen: I believe that—particularly if there is a little less game-playing and a little more consensus-building—a five-year or a 10-year Parliament and longer-term planning make a lot of sense when we are faced with issues that are not about tomorrow’s newspapers, but about the future of the planet, the future of our children and the future of our economy.

 

Some of our colleagues are new to the House—I except the hon. Member for Gainsborough—and assume that things have always been like this. Some colleagues, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), are very new to the House. They are probably thinking “Why on earth are they talking about this ancient history?” Well, some of us remember the ancient history.

 

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Having been in the House for some time, I am aware—as are you, Madam Deputy Speaker—of the paralysis that grips a Government when there is speculation about when a general election can take place. We have all lived through it. There is a long period of under-achievement, of anxiety, of shuffles, of the civil service not knowing when the general election will be, of appalling speculation in the media, and of threats by Back Benchers who say that they will do this, that or the other. That, to me, is bad governance and bad administration.

A fixed term brings clarity. It means all of us saying, “Let us get on with our job.” It does not mean saying to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the House will appoint you for a term but it may throw you out at any moment, or press speculation may end your wonderful career. Of course, no one operates like that in the real world. A degree of certainty will end much of the paralysis and speculation that has been so damaging to our politics for many years.

Mark Field: I do not entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about uncertainty in regard to election dates. However—this may be because there is currently a coalition Government, and because all the parties are going into the next election telling the electorate that they intend to win and have a manifesto that will enable them to win—an element of paralysis has clearly set in even at this early stage. As we know, there will be an election in May. I think that, in the event of another indeterminate election result, we should be relaxed about the possibility that we will not return for the Queen’s Speech until early or mid-June next year. There may well be an interval of several weeks. That would not necessarily constitute paralysis—it would be possible for government to continue—but Parliament would not be able to sit until we recognised what sort of coalition would be taking the place of the current Government.

Mr Allen: The benefit of our having a final year and knowing it is a final year is that we can plan for how we can sensibly use that final year. I absolve my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) of this, but is all the nonsense of “It will be a zombie Parliament unless we pack the last year full of inconsequential legislation, so that we can we pretend that we are macho and running the country” the best that we can do?

My Committee has produced two reports on this issue. We have studied it in great detail, and have heard from highly expert witnesses. We concluded that the fifth year of a Parliament could, because we would know that it would be the last year, be very different culturally—although not this first time round, because we are not used to it. Let us return to the default position of the old dogfight! Let us all slam each other over the Dispatch Box! But perhaps we could use the last year very constructively, rather than entering a state of paralysis or conducting ourselves in our normal, conventional way—often disgracefully, in the eyes of the public.

Sir William Cash: Did the hon. Gentleman’s Committee take evidence from Lord Norton of Louth? If so, can he remember what conclusions Lord Norton reached?

Mr Allen: I am afraid that I cannot remember, but Lord Norton of Louth—who is a very distinguished Member of the other place—gives evidence to us regularly,

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and I am confident that if we did not take oral evidence from him. he would have submitted some written evidence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not being able to recite it. No doubt he can do so.

Let me return to the points made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field). We can plan our lives here better. We, Members of Parliament—not the Government—can plan our lives better, in the parliamentary interest. That means not being told what to do. It does not mean being told how wonderful it is to be able to have a debate of our own choosing on days such as this. Aren’t we lucky to be able to have a couple of debates every so often? Aren’t we lucky to be allowed out into the playground? That is better than being told every second of our waking day what agenda is being set by the Government, and hearing the nonsense that somehow Parliament is deciding stuff. Of course it is the Government who are deciding—but, on this occasion, we have made a little bit of an inroad on behalf of Parliament.

Those were very good points, and I shall be sure to write them up and pass them to my local Member of Parliament; so the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster can expect a letter in the morning.

Let me explain a little about the importance of what a fixed-term Parliament allows us to do, first as a Parliament, secondly as an Administration and a Government, and thirdly for the electorate. What does a fixed-term Parliament allow us to do as Members of this House, and as members of Select Committees and other institutions in the House? For one thing, it allows us to have a sensible legislative programme. Until the advent of the fixed-term Parliament—and I look forward to the legislative programme of the next one, because by then we shall have learnt a few lessons—it was the same every time. An election was won, and no one was sure how long the Parliament would last. It was a case of “Let us stuff the big important Bills through the House at the earliest opportunity.” Then there will be a ton of Second Readings before the Christmas of the new Parliament, things will be pushed through and often written very poorly, and later on we will have a period in the doldrums when things are drifting along because most of the legislation has already gone through.

That is anathema to what I suspect virtually all colleagues in the House would support me on, which is pre-legislative scrutiny. A fixed-term Parliament allows us, for the first time ever, to plan our legislative programme, because we know when the beginning, middle and end are. Things that require more work and more detailed analysis by the civil service to produce a draft can be prioritised—really important, practical things that can involve the British public and bring them with us. The Scottish example has shown what fantastic accidental glory democracy can deliver us. Imagine if we planned our next employment Bill and talked to working people and employers. Imagine if we really thought carefully about what a climate change Bill could do three years hence. Imagine if we had a Parliament talking to the electorate because it knew how it could plan its legislative programme. What a different Parliament it would be if we decided to go that way—a Parliament that might earn people’s respect.

Pre-legislative scrutiny would allow this House to present a Bill and say, “Here’s our draft, let’s have a Second Reading and agree the principles, and then we’ll

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give it to an expert committee of colleagues of all parties to look at for a serious period”—three, four, five or six months—“to really get to the bottom of this and get the evidence together.” A Government who were listening could then enable that to happen—not once, because we have made a persuasive argument on the Floor of the House and won a vote, but as a matter of course because that is the way we conduct our business. We would then be in great danger of producing good law that did not require our coming back the next year to put right the things that were got wrong because we did not take our time or that needed a thousand amendments from the other place because our legislative process was so poor.

Richard Drax: First, there was no pre-legislative scrutiny, as far as I know, of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. Secondly, in the wonderful, mythological world that the hon. Gentleman lives in, he seems to forget that there is such a thing as politics. We do not always get on in this place—we disagree—and that is extremely good for democracy. I do not think the wonderful world he is portraying actually exists in this place—thank God, because nor should it.

Mr Allen: It is hard to pick the substance out of that intervention, but I will do my best. This is the first time that we have had a fixed term; the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, so he may not know that. When we have gone through the process once and come to it again, I hope we will have learned a few lessons. It gives us time to plan, whereas a system where there could be a general election at the drop of a hat means that we are in a state of febrile suspense about whether we are going to go to the electorate. Rightly, that is the first thing on our minds, rather than holding Government to account and perhaps developing an understanding of why Parliament is a separate institution from Government. Should the hon. Gentleman be re-elected and we have a four or five-year term, perhaps he will be able to find more time to understand some of those things a little more deeply.

Let me go back to how Parliament will benefit from this situation. Imagine a situation where each Select Committee has the power and the drive, and perhaps even the personnel, of a Committee like the Public Accounts Committee so that it could look at value for money, seriously examine Government accounts, and seriously examine accounting officers—and possibly even Government Ministers. Very few, if any, Select Committees other than the PAC can do that. Imagine what we could then do in terms of our constitutional role outlined by William Gladstone, who said that our role in Parliament is not to run the country but to hold to account those who do. It would be a massive step forward. People at home would say, “These guys are really earning their crust. They are not just shouting at each other on a Wednesday afternoon—they are figuring out how to save me, a taxpayer, a lot of money, how to make our services work better, how to involve people, and how to get ownership of the things we have in our society.”

Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I agree with everything my hon. Friend says about the benefits of Select Committees, pre-legislative scrutiny and all the

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other things that we want to develop, but the pre-supposition of his argument is that the people elect a Government who have the power to continue for a fixed term—in other words, they have a majority and can maintain it to carry out a legislative programme for a fixed term. In the present circumstances, with a multi-party system emerging and the two Government parties unevenly balanced, is that going to happen?

Mr Allen: We do not contrive a system for each result—we have to do it on the basis of principle. The principle that we know when a Parliament begins and ends is very important, not just for us here in our own cosy little world but for people outside. It is important for the electorate to understand why we are doing what we are doing, and that principle allows that to happen.

My Select Committee took evidence from other Select Committee Chairs, none of whom said that they wanted to go back to the old system. They all said, as I did as a Select Committee Chair, “This enables us to have greater planning ability, even within our own Select Committee.” I will give one example from my own Committee. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, as one of its most important members before you came to exalted high office late on and robbed us of one of our main contributors, my Committee spent four years looking at whether we should devise a written constitution. We considered what other options there were; conducted a very detailed investigation through an external body, King’s college London; took copious amounts of evidence; and carefully produced a document that everyone can be proud of and that will stand the test of time. That is not possible if we think that in a couple of years’ time there might be a general election when Members, rightly, will want to be in their constituencies and so on. These things allow us to plan our work, as MPs and Select Committees, much more easily.

We also improve public debate if we allow people outside to see what we are doing—our measures, our policies, our options—and thereby engage with people. Rather than just being a glorified electoral college to elect a Prime Minister some time in the early hours of general election day, we can get a real role in life as a Parliament and start to produce good legislation and better law, and to do things that the public will be proud of us for in holding Government to account. We would not lose Bills in the “wash up” but be able to plan effectively. A lot of people in this House worked on the Sex and Relationships Education Bill, which, as finally drafted, had the support of most people. That Bill was lost because a general election was called. People outside who had an interest in young people growing up with fully rounded capabilities and full knowledge so that they could raise good families of their own found it inexplicable that Parliament could act like that.

The next area I want to turn to—I will try to be a little more brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, since you have glowered at me—is Government and the civil service. I had the privilege of being sent by my Select Committee to each of the permanent secretaries in Whitehall. To a man and a woman, they basically said the same thing, including the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood—that planning, long-termism and sequencing had improved markedly since people knew when the beginning and end of the Parliament were. That allows the civil service to address the comprehensive spending

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review and say, “We know when the next Government will be coming in, so we will have things ready for them. Perhaps they will want to do things differently, if they are not another coalition Government.” That also helps with budgeting.

That mindset goes down the pipe from the civil service and Government to local government, which then has a sense of the expenditure model it could operate over the next five to 10 years. It also gives our national health service an idea of when to plan hospitals and train doctors and nurses, which are long-term activities. It allows the civil service and Government to get to grips with those things.

The voluntary sector is also affected. I speak as someone who was plagued by not knowing from one year to the next where the next cheque was coming from or how much it would be worth. People would be fired at Christmas in the hope that we could put them back to work on 5 April. What a stupid way to run a system—making it up as you go along. Paralysis at one level means chaos at another, all because we cannot do what every business, local government and president in western democracy does as a result of knowing the beginning and the end of a governing period and how to plan life within it. Finally, this also applies to the electorate. I hope that sensible electors will view everything I have talked about as evidence that we can be more rational and more fit to govern.

At the end of the day, the key things are not those I have listed, but the fact that knowing the date of a general election, how a Prime Minister is elected and how a Member of Parliament gets the honour of the job the public give them is not a gift from an over-centralised Executive who are used to running an empire, but a right of which every citizen in our democracy should be aware. Those are the benefits of having a fixed-term Parliament.

I will talk briefly about what should happen in the last year of a fixed-term Parliament. The last year can be used not in a conventional way but in order to say, “Yes, this is the year we are going to run up to a general election. Can we involve people and have a public education drive? Can we, as parties, perhaps with the help of the Office for Budget Responsibility or other institutions, cost all our programmes?” We could have that debate a year out from a general election, rather than the mud-slinging that happens in the last few days leading up to a general election, where one party says, “You’re spending too much,” another says, “You’re not spending enough,” and another says, “We’re going to raise money, but you’re borrowing too much.” Let us try to work all that out. At the end of the day, we might surprise ourselves. Despite all the rhetoric, there can be common ground on a lot of stuff. The least we can do in Parliament—not the Government; leave them in Whitehall and No. 10 for now—is to figure out what the key problems are for the nation on whose behalf we are meant to parlay.

That is a different approach, but we also need to keep this Government to their promise of creating a House business committee to enable us to have the time to do those serious political activities, rather than have the same old dogfight. We as a Parliament could have a real impact on the main parties’ manifestos by creating an evidence base for policy, figuring out what works for that policy and making sure it is properly costed.

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I hope that is a convincing argument for the need for clear planning and accurate budgeting and for involving the British people in our Parliament. We need to be confident that we are better than just doing what whoever runs the Government tells us to do or just opposing them from the Opposition Benches. We have gained a lot, but we can do even more. The Prime Minister committed to a review of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 in 2020. By then I hope we will have made progress, built on the Act and gone from strength to strength. I hope that will lead us to achieve two things that may just turn the tide and result in the electorate looking at us as something other than pariahs: better government and honest politics.