HC Deb 07 May 2002 vol 385 cc46-8

5.9 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for fixed-term parliaments.

Ten years ago, I was elected to the House on a policy of introducing a Bill to provide for Parliaments of a fixed term of four years. Labour's 1992 election manifesto declared: The general election was called only after months of on-again, off-again dithering which damaged our economy and weakened our democracy. No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above country as the Conservatives have done. Although an early election will sometimes be necessary, we will introduce as a general rule a fixed parliamentary term. That proposal was a good one then, and I believe the argument to be a good one now. Indeed, the case has become stronger still because of recent developments, which I shall mention in a moment, but the fundamental issue is this: should one party and one person be able to fix the date of a general election to suit their own interests?

If it were suggested that one runner in a race should be able to fire the starting pistol at a moment of his choosing and, moreover, that that runner should be the one who had won the race last time, it would be considered absurd and monstrously unfair, although, no doubt, there would still be those who would defend the practice as traditional and having the merits of flexibility. Yet that is precisely what we allow in relation to general elections.

Of course all parties, all Governments and all Prime Ministers see this issue through the distorting lens of their own interests. Indeed, when I asked one of my colleagues what he thought about fixed-term Parliaments, he said, "What a good idea. What shall we say, 20 years?" It is not difficult to understand why a proposal that seems eminently sensible in opposition should begin to look less attractive in government—except that the Government have presided over a bold and ambitious programme of parliamentary and constitutional reform, which will be their great historical legacy. They have done so because they believe in reform, often against their immediate political or party self-interest, and it is in that spirit that I wish to add this further item to the programme.

Why is it possible for a Government, in the person of a Prime Minister, to fix the date of a general election? It is possible because it is a prerogative power, formerly exercised by the monarch, but, in practice, it is passed to the Prime Minister. That is why a letter arrived to tell me that I shall need to get the permission of the palace, through the good offices of the Home Secretary, before the Bill can proceed any further.

It is surely no longer acceptable to the House for the prerogative to be used in that way, as a legitimising cloak for Executive and prime ministerial power. It could also put the monarch in an invidious position, which has been glimpsed at certain politically sensitive times in the past. Not the least of the benefits of constitutionalising the prerogative power of Dissolution would be to protect the Crown against possible political difficulty and embarrassment. That would surely be an admirable golden jubilee gift from a grateful Parliament.

The present arrangements, which limit the life of Parliament without fixing the date of elections, are simply the product of historical circumstances. The Septennial Act 1715—which, of course, replaced the previous Triennial Acts—was designed by the Whigs as a bit of emergency propping up of the new Hanoverian monarchy. The shift from a seven-year limit to five years under the Parliament Act 1911 was an incidental by-product of House of Lords reform. At that time, Prime Minister Asquith said that the change would probably amount in practice to an actual working term of four years."—[Official Report, 21 February 1911; Vol. XXI, c. 1749.] That is what the Bill seeks to enact.

The Bill would fix general elections at four-yearly intervals, which reflects a post-war average of 3.7 years. It would allow departures from that in the event of Governments' losing the confidence of the House, while preventing Governments from engineering bogus no-confidence votes to trigger Dissolutions. It would also give the Electoral Commission a role in setting precise dates for the election timetable.

The question of when elections are held is, or should be, a basic part of a democracy's infrastructure. In local government, it is accepted practice that they be held at regular and fixed intervals. The same practice was accepted when this House legislated to set up the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales; there was no suggestion then that the Executives of those bodies should be able to decide when they wanted to hold elections. The same practice is also accepted by the European Parliament and, indeed, by most of Europe, in which fixed four-year electoral cycles are common.

The time has surely come for Westminster to catch up. Indeed, a Prime Minister who will be the first since the war to agree to appear before a Select Committee of this House is well equipped to be the first to relinquish this prerogative power. If he remains unpersuaded, a word with Lord Callaghan might be enough to convince him that the power can be a curse, as well as a blessing. A change such as I am proposing might help him with other difficulties, too. For example, the Government would like elections to a reformed House of Lords to be tied to general elections, but as the Public Administration Committee's recent report on House of Lords reform pointed out, it is very difficult to fix the terms of those elected without first fixing general election dates.

Similar difficulties exist in relation to the new legislation on party funding. Spending controls are imposed on parties and groups for one year before a general election, but given that election dates are not fixed, the timing of that period is unclear. That creates problems for parties, pressure groups and the Electoral Commission, so it is not surprising that the commission itself is taking an interest in fixed-term Parliaments. As I said, such new factors add weight to the traditional case.

There is a further factor. We are all preoccupied with how to counter the electorate's cynicism about, and detachment from, the political process. The spectacle of parties and politicians manipulating election dates to their own advantage—a process that has intensified in the past 30 years—does nothing to counter, and much to reinforce, such cynicism. We live in a different world from the one in which Sir Stafford Cripps, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, persuaded Clement Attlee to call an election in advance of the 1950 Budget, lest the charge might be made that the electorate were being improperly bribed. On that ground alone, the case for change is surely made.

I offer one final consideration. It will not be long before speculation about the date of the next general election begins in earnest, and pencil marks around certain dates have doubtless already been made on someone's calendar. A change of the kind that I propose would close down that industry at a stroke, and would be received by the electorate with a huge collective sigh of relief. Of course, there would be losers. I am thinking of all those journalists who spend a happy year or two writing endless columns of, and filling many hours with, speculative nonsense about election dates, and who would be obliged to give their attention to something else. To be deprived of the product of their labours is, I suggest, a cross that we should all just have to bear. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Tony Wright, Mr. Graham Allen, Kevin Brennan, Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Sir Patrick Cormack. Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Mark Fisher, Helen Jackson, Mr. Mark Oaten, Mr. Paul Tyler and Brian White.