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 and Nabila Roukhamieh-McKinna explain 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

This prorogation is improper: the government should reverse it

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgBoris Johnson’s prorogation announcement has generated widespread criticism, and will be hotly debated when MPs return today from their summer break. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell argue that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was an improper use of executive power, sets dangerous precedents, and undermines fundamental principles of our constitution. It should therefore not proceed. MPs may seek to block it, and so may the courts, but the preferable route would be for the government to recognise its mistake and reverse it.

MPs return to Westminster today after the five-week summer recess in deeply unusual and worrying circumstances. Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has faced just one day of parliamentary scrutiny since taking office on 24 July, triggered a prorogation of parliament, set to last another five weeks. Particularly given the Brexit deadline of 31 October, this has caused widespread consternation: among opposition parties, senior Conservatives (such as former Prime Minister Sir John Major, and Lord Young of Cookham who served for 24 of the last 40 years on the frontbench under a succession of Conservative leaders), plus constitutional experts, and the wider public. MPs must now decide how to respond, and meanwhile the action is being challenged in the courts. In this piece we argue that the prorogation was improper, that it sets dangerous precedents, that it is contrary to our constitutional traditions, and that there is still time for the government to defuse the crisis by reversing it.

The rights and wrongs of prorogation

At one level, parliamentary prorogation is entirely uncontroversial. By routine, a short prorogation usually occurs each year between the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the next – ahead of a new Queen’s speech. In addition, a short prorogation often occurs before parliament is dissolved for a general election, in order to regulate the timing and ensure that election day takes place on a Thursday. The recent practice and procedure of prorogation is set out clearly in an excellent briefing from the House of Commons Library.

Discussion of potentially more sinister uses of prorogation began during the Conservative leadership contest, when Dominic Raab (now Foreign Secretary) refused to rule out proroguing parliament to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the face of opposition by MPs. This was roundly condemned by others in the race at the time: being described by Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) as ‘trashing democracy’, and Michael Gove (now effective Deputy Prime Minister) as ‘a terrible thing’. Andrea Leadsom (now Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) commented that ‘I don’t think prorogation is the right thing to do and I don’t think that a Prime Minister would choose to do that’.

Following Johnson’s prorogation announcement, ministers have instead suggested that this is absolutely standard procedure. On Thursday’s Today programme, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, claimed that it was more or less what happened every year, and that it was ‘because of the 3 ½ weeks of conference recess [that] it is five weeks in total’. Hence Rees-Mogg accused critics of the move of expressing ‘confected anger’.

But such suggestions of normality are disingenuous, seeking to exploit public confusion between the different means by which it can be decided that the Commons will not sit. It is important to distinguish between the following three things:

Prorogation brings all parliamentary business to a complete stop. Unless rescued by a government motion, bills that are before parliament fall and must start their passage again. Importantly, the decision to prorogue lies wholly in the hands of the government – through issuing advice to the Queen, which she is duty bound to accept. Usually a prorogation lasts for just a few days. Research by the House of Lords Library shows that a five-week prorogation will be the longest since 1930.  

Parliamentary recess is very different. Recess occurs periodically throughout the year, to accommodate holidays and, usually, a break for the party conferences. However, the decision to adjourn for recess lies with MPs. The motion for the 2019 conference recess had not yet been laid, and the looming Brexit deadline meant that there was increasing pressure from MPs to cancel or cut this recess short. Crucially, it is also possible for some parliamentary business – such as meetings of select committees – to continue during recess, and the progress of bills is not halted.

Dissolution of parliament in contrast occurs before a general election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the decision to dissolve parliament again lies with MPs themselves – and is taken by a parliamentary vote. Dissolution does not simply suspend parliament: as the name suggests, it dissolves parliament in preparation for the creation of a new one through a general election.

Hence either recess or dissolution, sometimes combined with a short prorogation, frequently result in parliamentary breaks which last a number of weeks. But in both of these cases MPs take the decision to break themselves. Had ministers genuinely wanted to hold a ‘routine’ prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s speech, as they claim, they could easily have proposed one lasting a few days, and left the decision to MPs regarding whether to take the conference recess. Instead, they have proposed the longest prorogation for 90 years, using executive power to shut down parliament in the midst of a crisis – seemingly to avoid the risk that MPs would veto the conference recess, and perhaps use the time available defeat the government on other things. As suggested in the previous comments of Conservative leadership contenders, that represents an improper use of executive power. Continue reading

The 2016 Queen’s speech and the constitution

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Last week’s Queen’s speech included proposals to bring forward a British bill of rights and a commitment that ministers would ‘uphold the sovereignty of Parliament and the primacy of the House of Commons’. Mark Elliott suggests that if action was taken to implement them these measures would be highly significant. However, there is no sign of developed government thinking in these areas at this stage and so, in practice, they may amount to very little.

This year’s Queen’s speech touches on two possible constitutional reform measures. (I pass over the Wales Bill, which was published in draft in October 2015). The first concerns the replacement of the Human Rights Act 1998 with a ‘British Bill of Rights’, while the second concerns the sovereignty of parliament and the ‘primacy’ of the House of Commons. If implemented, these measures would be highly significant. But the signs are that, for the time being anyway, they may amount to very little in practice – not least because the Government’s thinking in relation to them appears to be undeveloped to say the least.

A British bill of rights

The Conservative Party has for some considerable time said that it wants to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA) with a bill of rights (albeit that exactly what would thereby be entailed has been, and remains, shrouded in uncertainty). Any attempt at reform in this area was stymied in the last parliament by the politics of coalition, the Conservatives’ Liberal Democrat partners being staunchly committed to the retention of the HRA. The most that could be managed then was a Commission on a Bill of Rights, whose proposals, such as they were, came to nothing.

Freed from the shackles of coalition, the Government promised in last year’s Queen’s speech to bring forward ‘proposals for a British Bill of Rights’. This year’s speech contained an almost identically worded undertaking promising ‘proposals’ but not a bill as such. The fact that little, if any, progress appears to have been made in this area is testament to the legal, constitutional and political difficulties that arise (matters that I consider further here). In political terms, the government appears to be divided on the question of whether the UK should remain a party to the ECHR – the Home Secretary thinks not – while the politics of devolution represent a major complication.

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The new opposition: How will SNP MPs influence Westminster politics?

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Louise Thompson argues that the constitutional challenges we will see over the next 5 years will be a product of the changed composition of Parliament. Here, she specifically considers how SNP are likely to try and amend proposed constitutional reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

We are only a couple of weeks in to the 2015 Parliament, but we can already see signs of big changes from the previous Parliament, as well as some major parliamentary and constitutional challenges ahead. Last week’s Queen’s Speech proved what most commentators had already suspected; the first majority Conservative Government for nearly two decades will oversee a period of major constitutional change. This includes greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to English cities and an In-Out referendum on membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017. The constitutional ground is beginning to move already. The Prime Minister has already met with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

As returning MPs took their seats in the chamber following the Queen’s Speech last week, they were met with a sea of unfamiliar faces as 182 new Members took their seats in the chamber. There is nothing new about a high turnover of MPs – the 2010 General Election saw an even higher turnover of Members. But the composition of the new intake, with record numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, a massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and the arrival of a much larger number of SNP MPs is very different to what the House has seen before. The challenges we will see over the next five years to the government’s planned constitutional reforms are very much a product of this changing composition.

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What the Queen said – and what she didn’t say

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Following yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, Robert Hazell considers the constitutional issues that featured, as well as those which were notable in their absence.

There were few surprises in the Queen’s Speech announcing the new government’s legislative programme. Like his admired predecessor Tony Blair, David Cameron knows that the public have little interest in constitutional issues, so the constitutional items came last, just before foreign affairs. England got mentioned first, with devolution to English cities; then more powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; English votes for English laws; the EU referendum; and a British bill of rights. What are the key issues to look out for in relation to each of these items? And what other items didn’t get a mention?

The Scotland Bill will be introduced early, because that was promised in the Vow, and the coalition government published draft clauses in January. It will implement the proposals of the Smith Commission, but go no further. It appears to be a done deal, but will be attacked on both sides. The SNP attack is predictable: they will say their resounding victory in Scotland is a mandate to go much further. But the bill also risks being attacked on the government side. The Smith proposals are based on no underlying principles and were very hurried, with no consultation amongst the political parties and endorsed only by the three main party leaders. When the details are examined, unionists on all sides may start to worry about their feasibility, and compatibility with the union. Whitehall was bounced into Smith like everyone else, and no one can confidently say how the fiscal arrangements will work in practice.

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Once the election results are in, how do we decide who forms the government?

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Robert Hazell summarises the process of government formation that will begin tomorrow.

By Friday morning we should know most of the election results. Assuming the polls are proved correct, with Labour and the Conservatives each having around 270 to 280 seats, and both well short of a majority, what happens next? Answer: this is not a political or constitutional crisis. The parties will negotiate to work out who can command confidence in the new Parliament. That will be formally established in the vote on the Queen’s Speech in 3-4 weeks’ time. In the meantime the Cameron government remains in office as a caretaker government.

Who governs in the meantime?

If Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats choose to resign (because they have done badly, or to strengthen their negotiating position) Cameron still remains in office as Prime Minister. He may leave the Lib Dem positions vacant, or fill just a few in case of emergencies (e.g. Energy Secretary). The incumbent government will be able to respond to any emergencies at home or abroad, but otherwise is limited in the decisions it can make. Ministers remain in office, even if they have lost their seats. Under the caretaker convention, the government will try to avoid taking any decisions which might bind the hands of a future government. This means that it should not embark on any new policy, let any major government contracts, or make any senior public appointments. If these are unavoidable, it should consult first with the opposition parties: as Alistair Darling did before going to the ECOFIN meeting on 9 May 2010 to discuss the first Greek bailout.

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How should parliament decide who will be the next Prime Minister: by a nomination vote, or the Queen’s Speech?

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Robert Hazell weighs up options for establishing who can command the confidence of the House of Commons, which will be particularly significant in the likely event of another coalition. This is the fourth in a series of posts about government formation after the election.

The Cabinet Manual explains the rules as follows:

‘… the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House [of Commons] to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government’ (para 2.8)

In a hung parliament that appears to require the Queen to play a guessing game. But the Cabinet Manual goes on to say:

‘Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved…’ (para 2.13).

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