In defence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act has come in for a lot of criticism of late, but is it as badly designed and drafted as some commentators would have us believe? The House of Lords Constitution Committee recently commenced an inquiry into the effectiveness of the Act to seek answers to this question. Robert Hazell was one of the first witnesses to give oral evidence to the Committee, and in this blog , written with Nabila Roukhamieh-McKinna, he explains the background to the inquiry, and some of the key issues being addressed.

Background

With perfect timing, the House of Lords Constitution Committee announced on 25 July, the day after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, that they planned to conduct an inquiry into the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). With even more exquisite timing, the Committee held their first evidence session on 4 September, the day that Johnson tried but failed to persuade the House of Commons to vote for an early general election under section 2(1) of the Act. Robert Hazell gave evidence in that first session on 4 September, supported by Nabila Roukhamieh-McKinna.

The FTPA attracted some controversy when it was passed, and contains a provision for a statutory review after ten years. Section 7 requires the Prime Minister to arrange next year for a committee to carry out a review, with a majority of its members being from the House of Commons. The current inquiry can be seen as the Lords gearing up for the statutory review.

The FTPA has been strongly criticised, and blamed for the deadlock in parliament, where the government remains in office but cannot deliver on its flagship policy. This is largely due to the Act’s stipulation that the support of two-thirds of MPs is required for an early dissolution. Formerly, the Prime Minister could make an issue a matter of confidence, such that its defeat would automatically trigger a general election. Professor Vernon Bogdanor laments this undermining of prime ministerial power, arguing that Theresa May was unable to threaten the Commons with dissolution, unlike Edward Heath in 1972 with the European Communities Bill.

Conversely, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP has accused the drafters of the FTPA of strengthening the Prime Minister. He refers specifically to the ambiguity about the 14-day period after the government loses a vote of no confidence, during which there is no requirement for the Prime Minister to resign. Similarly, Catherine Haddon writes that the Act has ‘done little but to frustrate and confuse,’ given its silence on what should happen during the 14 day period. Such criticisms are not new. In a debate in 2014 Sir Edward Leigh MP argued for its repeal, and Lord Grocott and Lord Desai have both introduced bills providing for such an outcome.

This rush to judgement seems premature, with only limited experience so far of the FTPA. It is also insular. Fixed terms tend to be the norm, in Europe and the Westminster world, and there are lessons to be learned from their experience. Robert Hazell’s written submission to the Lords Constitution Committee summarised the main lessons to be learned from overseas, drawing on the Constitution Unit’s detailed report on Fixed Term Parliaments published in 2010. This blog starts with a summary of the arguments for and against fixed terms, before addressing the main concerns raised about the FTPA. Continue reading

Can David Cameron call a second election? How does that fit with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

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Robert Hazell outlines how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act restricts the new government from calling a second election. He writes that if Cameron wanted to take a gamble to boost his slender majority, he would have to work within the confines of the Act given the likely complexities of any attempt to repeal it.

This is the third in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Now that David Cameron has won, but only with a slender majority, speculation will turn to whether his government will last a full five years; and whether he could improve his numbers by calling a second election. In the run up to the election there was talk of the new government calling a second election after a year or so, as Harold Wilson did in 1966 and again in 1974. This kind of speculation is wild. It is no longer possible for the Prime Minister to seek an early dissolution, because the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament was abolished by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. It is now up to Parliament to decide whether there should be an early election. Under the Act there are only two ways in which Parliament can be dissolved early:

  • By a motion ‘that there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ passed by at least two thirds of the House of Commons (s 2(1))
  • By a formal no confidence motion, in the statutory form prescribed in the Act (that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’), passed by a simple majority of those voting (s 2(3)). If no alternative government can be formed within 14 days which can command confidence, Parliament is dissolved and an early election held.

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The new government’s constitutional reform agenda – and its challenges

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Following the surprise election of a Conservative government with a small majority, Meg Russell and Robert Hazell offer an overview of the constitutional reforms which are likely to be prioritised and the associated difficulties that may arise.

Now that the election result is clear, it’s possible to start thinking through the likely constitutional reforms on the new Conservative government’s agenda. Some of these items are obvious, and others less so. Many of them are very challenging, as we explain below – and will expand in more detail on this blog in the coming days and weeks.

Scottish and Welsh devolution

The biggest story in this election, including as the results came in, has been Scotland. The challenge for Prime Minister Cameron is to hold the UK together, at the very moment when the SNP has almost swept the board in terms of Scottish seats. The Conservative manifesto, like those of the other UK-wide parties, committed to implementing the recommendations of the Smith Commission to devolve further fiscal and welfare powers to Scotland. The Scottish people have been led to believe that will happen easily and early in the new parliament. But this may be difficult. The Smith proposals were strongly criticised by two parliamentary committees – in both Commons and Lords. The SNP will press for more, in pursuit of full fiscal autonomy; while devo-sceptic Conservative backbenchers may argue for less. The sensible thing may be to introduce proposals via a draft bill, to see whether middle ground can be found.

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We need clearer reporting on the 2015 election

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The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).

There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).

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What would a minority government be like?

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As the election approaches, Peter Riddell explores the very real prospect of a minority government and considers the challenges which would be likely to arise from such a scenario.

Paul Goodman was right to argue on Conservative Home in November that a minority government may be more likely than a full-blown coalition if there is a hung parliament next May. The bruises from the current coalition and changes in party strengths since 2010 have shifted expectations against a further coalition. And a lot of thought is now under way as to how a minority government would function, and how long it might last.

First, if you thought the ‘five days in May’ of 2010 tested the political and media worlds’ patience, we could be in for an even longer wait in five months’ time. At least in 2010, the first and third parties in terms of numbers of MPs added up to a clear Commons majority.  But some recent polls suggest that the first and third parties may not pass the winning post for an overall majority, even discounting the handful of Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats.

That calculation makes much harder not only the formation of a coalition, but also reaching an informal arrangement. A multi-party deal is possible, but in theory only since the fourth, fifth and sixth parties, whether the SNP, DUP or UKIP have nothing to gain by allying with the larger parties.  Of course, the SNP could be ahead of the Lib Dems on some projections, which makes a deal even less likely. And that could takes us back a century to when the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power.

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