A question of confidence? The Constitution Committee’s view on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011

Nine years after the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, both government and opposition have expressed a desire to repeal it, following two general elections: one brought about about using the provisions of the Act and another by circumventing them. The Constitution Committee has produced a report setting out what any replacement legislation needs to address. Its Chair, Baroness Taylor, discusses the Committee’s conclusions below.

On its introduction in 2011, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) was heralded by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, as a ‘constitutional innovation’ that would no longer allow the timing of general elections to be a ‘plaything of Governments’. Nine years on, it is safe to say that the FTPA has not had the effect that he and others envisaged. The FTPA has been stress-tested and found wanting by political parties and commentators alike. 

The FTPA sets the length of parliaments at five years and requires the approval of the House of Commons for an early general election. It removed the longstanding prerogative power of the monarch to dissolve parliament at the request of the Prime Minister and instead vested this authority in Members of Parliament. In 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May proved that a government that wanted an election could secure one using the provisions of the FTPA. In 2019, at the helm of a minority government that was thrice denied an early general election under the FTPA, Prime Minister Boris Johnson sidestepped its requirements with the Early Parliamentary General Election Act.

These events prompted proposals from both the Conservative and Labour parties to repeal the FTPA. The current government has reiterated that commitment since taking office. However, repealing the FTPA is not straightforward, given its constitutional and legal implications. It is in this context that the House of Lords Constitution Committee published its report on the FTPA on 4 September, exploring its effects and the questions that need to be addressed for any future reform.

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Can Boris Johnson simply repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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The Conservative manifesto pledged to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but was silent about what, if anything, would replace it. Robert Hazell argues that it is not enough to simply repeal the Act; new legislation will have to be drafted, parliamentary scrutiny will have to take place, and the options for reform should be properly considered.

Can the Fixed-term Parliaments Act simply be repealed? The short answer is: no. As always, it is more complicated than that. But the commitment in the Conservative manifesto was unambiguous: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act [sic] – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’ (page 48). And decisive action is what the government hopes to display through early repeal of the FTPA. It does not seem to be one of the issues to be referred to the new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, since they were mentioned separately in the Queen’s Speech. So — unless the government has second thoughts — we can expect early legislation to be introduced to repeal the FTPA.

The government may feel that it can press ahead with little opposition, since the Labour manifesto contained an equally unambiguous commitment to repeal: ‘A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments’ (page 81). But there is no need for urgent legislation: this is not a pressing issue, and with a government majority of 87, we are not going to see motions for early dissolution or ‘no confidence’ any time soon. And there are good reasons for taking it more slowly: not least, that there is provision for a statutory review of the FTPA in section 7 of the Act, due to be initiated in 2020. In anticipation of that review, the Lords Constitution Committee is already conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Act, due to conclude in around March.

The evidence submitted last year to the Constitution Committee (in 14 written submissions, and four sessions of oral evidence) has brought out many of the difficulties involved. These are both political and technical. The main political difficulty is that repeal of the Act would return us to the situation where the incumbent Prime Minister can choose the date of the next election. No one disputes the potential advantage that confers: in Roy Jenkins’s famous phrase, uttered during a Lords debate on 11 March 1992, it is equivalent to deciding ‘to give the pistol in a race to one of the competitors and encourage him to fire it whenever he thinks that the others are least ready’. It also enables the government to time the election when they are doing well in the opinion polls, and to stoke up their support through good news announcements and giveaway budgets. Petra Schleiter’s research shows that this confers a significant electoral advantage: in the UK since 1945, the average vote share bonus realised on calling an early election was around 6%, and it doubled the likelihood that the incumbent PM survived in office.

Electoral fairness is the main argument for fixed terms, but not the only one. Other reasons include better planning in Whitehall because of greater certainty, less risk of losing legislation to a snap election, more clarity for the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, and for the political parties. It is true that electoral certainty has not been much in evidence in recent years, with two early elections in 2017 and 2019. But it would be wrong to judge the FTPA solely on the basis of the extraordinary Brexit parliaments of 2015 and 2017. It is too early to rush to judgement, and it is too insular: most of the Westminster world, and almost all European parliaments have fixed terms, so there is plenty of wider experience to draw upon. A more balanced approach would ask – as the Lords Constitution Committee has done – whether the FTPA needs fine tuning, and if so what amendments are required, rather than rushing straight to repeal. Continue reading

Should we codify the royal prerogative?

com.google.Chrome.vxw6lk.jpgThe recent controversy about the unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament and the judicial review that followed has given rise to renewed calls for the codification of the royal prerogative or the enactment of a written constitution. Anne Twomey argues that there are benefits to a looser prerogative power, and that experience in other countries has shown that codification should be undertaken with caution.

The recent controversy about the prorogation of parliament and the judicial review of its exercise in Miller No 2 (also known as Cherry/Miller) has again given rise to calls for the codification of the prerogative or the enactment of a written constitution.

A written constitution is not necessarily an antidote for ambiguity or interpretative discretion. The same issues that arose in Miller No 2 could also arise under a written constitution. For example, section 5 of the Australian Constitution confers upon the Governor-General of Australia the power to prorogue the federal parliament. In doing so, however, it does not delineate the scope of the power to prorogue and whether there are any internal limits on it. The term ‘prorogue’ would have to be interpreted in its historical context, as a prerogative power, and in a manner that is consistent with the principles that are derived from the constitution, including the principles of responsible and representative government

So what would happen if an Australian government requested the Governor-General to prorogue parliament for a significant period, in circumstances where it appeared to have lost confidence and to be seeking to frustrate the ability of parliament to fulfil is legislative and accountability functions? It is likely that Australian courts would face exactly the same issues as the UK Supreme Court did in Miller No 2, regarding justiciability, the scope of the power to prorogue and the application of fundamental constitutional principles. Simply setting out the existing power in legislation or a written constitution does not, of itself, resolve all questions as to its application.

While most prerogative powers have now been abrogated by legislation, there is usually a good reason while those that have survived as prerogative do so. It may be because of the need to exercise them in a quick and decisive fashion. Sometimes, codifying prerogatives in legislation, particularly where prescriptive conditions are included, can exacerbate problems about their use. Disputes are likely to arise about the interpretation of the application of the conditions, courts are likely to become involved in enforcing them, and the delay involved in litigation is likely to exacerbate any political crisis. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading