Do Fixed Term Parliaments fix anything?

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House of Commons chamberFormer BBC Parliamentary Correspondent Robert Orchard reports from The Hansard Society’s 9th July event, ‘Is Parliament in a fix? The run-up to the election in a Fixed Term Parliament.’

A little-noticed constitutional change — slipped through parliament after the Conservative – Lib Dem coalition was formed in 2010 – could have profound and long-lasting effects on the way British democracy operates…. and could even cause “a potential scandal” .Those were the views of a panel of parliamentary experts assembled by the Hansard Society this week  (Wednesday 9 July) at Westminster.

A public meeting entitled Is Westminster in a Fix? pondered the often under-rated significance of the new, five-year, fixed-term parliaments, which have removed at a stroke the traditional discretionary power of Prime Ministers to pick and choose when to call an election, usually at the time considered most likely to get them and their party re-elected.

The political consultant and polling expert, Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks, said the average length of a parliament in modern times had been just three years and ten months.

In the last 50 years, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, and Tony Blair all used the power successfully to call an early election and get re-elected before their maximum five-year term was up. Only Ted Heath bucked the trend in February 1974, losing an early election he had called in an attempt to face down a miners’ strike, power cuts and the Three-Day working week.

The only times the UK parliament has run its full potential five-year term in modern days were in 1979, 1992 and 2010… all occasions when an unpopular governing party was hanging on to power till the last possible moment., and promptly lost the ensuing election.

Ms Mattinson said her research suggested that constitutional change was very low on the public’s list of what they cared about. And fixed-term parliaments came near the bottom of the list even among those voters who were interested in any kind of constitutional change. She predicted that the move to fixed, five-years terms would mean much longer election campaigns and even more boring party conferences.

But other speakers thought the change had more profound and potentially controversial consequences. The Director of the Hansard Society, Dr Ruth Fox, said we all now knew precisely when this parliament would be dissolved and the election called — 30 March next year — but she noted that the failure to fix a date for the new parliament to meet was a flaw that undermined the aim of providing certainty.

She said the separate decision to extend the electoral timetable from 17 to 25 working days now meant the UK faces its longest period without a parliament since 1924. There will be five and a half weeks before election day itself and then, if again there’s no clear majority, potentially another couple of weeks for negotiations between parties before parliament reconvenes, if the start date of the new parliament mirrors the timetable in 2010. That would mean no parliament sitting for almost eight weeks.

“If you say parliament matters, then to be without a parliament for nearly two months, with no ability to recall parliament either, is a worrying development”, she said.

And she suggested an unintended consequence if the coalition government does not last all the way through to the election could be more lurid headlines and negative stories about politicians in the national press. Dr Fox painted a picture of what she called “a potential scandal waiting to happen” if the Tory-Lib Dem coalition broke up a few months before that looming March election.

If Liberal Democrat Cabinet ministers resigned from the government, they would be entitled to severance pay worth three months’ ministerial salary, she said. New, Conservative, Cabinet ministers would probably have to be appointed in their place, possibly for just a few weeks in office before the election. If their party were then to lose the election and not be involved in any subsequent coalition, THEY would qualify for the same severance pay – worth three months’ ministerial salary.

And, she added, “if the Liberal Democrats came back into government, they would be back receiving ministerial salaries again… on top of their previous severance pay… and there is nothing we could do to prevent that in the wording of the actual law. Imagine the Daily Mail headlines!”

The panel also grappled with the knotty problem of what would happen if no stable government could be formed after another indecisive election.

Under the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, an early general election can now only be triggered in two ways. First, if the government loses a formal vote of No Confidence then an early election can be held unless some of the parties in the House of Commons negotiate to form a new government that can win a Confidence vote within 14 days.

And second, if two thirds of MPs vote to force a general election (including vacant seats – that’s 434 votes out of 650), then an early election can take place.

But what if a coalition or minority government emerges after the 2015 election, which later either splits apart or starts losing a series of key votes in the Commons, making it unable to carry out a programme of passing new laws or to govern effectively? The Prime Minister might resign and an opposition party leader could step into the breach.

But what if he or she fails too? And what if, for their own reasons, the main opposition parties then don’t want to force a vote of No Confidence…perhaps they don’t have the money to fight a second election in quick succession, so they have the votes to thwart the government from achieving any of its policies but hold back from forcing it out of office… leaving a sort of “Zombie government”?

Professor Philip Norton of Hull University is a leading authority on parliament and the constitution, as well as being a Conservative peer. He said that scenario was “a lacuna” in the Act. “There is no provision for a government that implodes but is not voted out,” he said.

“You could get internal conflict in the government and it might not be able to govern. We could be in a situation where we have no government but no general election… what is sometimes known as “The Belgian Situation!”

Several speakers queried the choice of five years rather than four for the length of the new fixed-term parliaments and others complained that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act had received very little attention or scrutiny by MPs and peers, or by the media ,before it became law. Lord Norton suggested that this was because the media did not understand the Bill.

The former Labour MP, Bruce now Lord Grocott… once a parliamentary aide to Tony Blair — chairs the Hansard Society and he suggested that one problem might have been that the legislation had been supported by all three major parties.

“The worst kind of legislation is that which resulted from absolute agreement so there was no debate on its merits,” he said.

Another panellist was the BBC Parliamentary Correspondent, Mark Darcy, a seasoned watcher of the ways and wiles of Westminster, delving deep into the parliamentary undergrowth, and proudly wearing what he called his “anorak of office”. He thought the move to fixed-term parliaments was more a “political expedient” designed to protect the Liberal Democrats… from being ditched by the Tories calling a snap election once their poll ratings improved… rather than what he called “a desire for a perfect constitution”.

He suggested that “the biorhythms of parliament” had not yet adapted to having perpetual five-year parliaments and proposed one novel solution; “Why not invent some form of post-legislative scrutiny?” This could see MPs reviewing previous legislation enacted by past governments of all political hues — to assess how well or how badly a law was working. He suggested this could help even out what might otherwise become a pattern of the Commons “oscillating between hyperactivity and torpor” under the new five-year system.

But one Hansard Society member protested loudly at what he saw as complacency about the whole issue, saying he was “bored and fed up” that this parliament was lasting the full five years. He felt fixed terms had removed the opportunity to throw out a government so often.

Switching to fixed five-year parliaments, rather than the recent average of around four years, would, he said, mean considerably fewer chances for the public to vote in a general election in their lifetime…. and he wanted an election now!

Robert Orchard is a former BBC Parliamentary Correspondent and has presented a number of BBC Radio 4 programmes, including Yesterday in Parliament and Today in Parliament. He also edited BBC News Online’s General Election coverage in 2001 and has written articles for The House Magazine.

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