HL Deb 22 May 1991 vol 529 cc244-62

3.18 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham rose to call attention to the case for fixed term parliaments, following the practice of many other democracies, to avoid the economic and political effects of sustained speculation about the dates of general elections; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a minute or two ago during Question Time the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, spoke about an election looming. In a sense he provided the text for the Motion which we propose from these Benches today. It is: to draw attention to the need for fixed term Parliaments.

I do not think that anyone can doubt that this is a topical and timely issue. I shall attempt to explain why I think that it is also an important issue which will be well explored in your Lordships' House. It is not a new issue. In 1931, Professor Ramsay Muir, in his evidence on the triennial and septennial Acts, described what had become by then the personal prime-ministerial prerogative of calling an election at a time of his political convenience as an "unsound constitutional doctrine". I shall return to the constitutionality of the matter later.

However, I start by asking your Lordships a common sense Question. It is a question which may be best addressed to those who support what I shall call the "floating" date as opposed to the "fixed" date for the general election. To those who support the idea of a floating date, my Question is: why does the British electorate have to endure every few years a coy guessing game about the date of the general election? It has become the electoral equivalent of that childish game of peekaboo: "Now you see it, now you don't!" At least once a month since January of this year, the Government's Back-Benchers have been marched grumbling up to the top of the hill, perched on the verge of a general election, and then marched unceremoniously down the other side of the hill. We know that the opinion polls are scrutinised with all the feverish anxiety of a hypochondriac. The Conservative Party Chairman raises and lowers expectations every day like a political barometer.

One might say that that is all good clean fun, and so it would be if it were an obscure private game, but it is not. General elections are about renewing the power and re-establishing the legitimacy upon which democratic government rests. So in a very real sense, elections should belong to the voters rather than in any sense belonging to or being manipulated by the Prime Minister and the Government. If that is not so, it is to give to the Prime Minister and his party what, in American politics is known as an incumbency advantage. It is a travesty of serious democracy when Messrs. William Hill and Ladbroke give odds not just on the result of the election—that is fair enough—but on the date of the general election. One can place a wager on the date upon which the general election will be held as if it had all the unpredictability and charm of a horse race.

The bad effects are not confined merely to lowering standards of democracy, they affect everyone. In industry, industrialists hold back on investment until the political outlook becomes clearer; markets dance to political calculations; and civil servants now spend much of their time on contingency plans of one sort or another. Ordinary citizens, let alone Members of Parliament, begin to wonder what is the best time at which to take their annual holidays. What is more crucial is that the management of the economy tends to become coloured, and some would say controlled, by manipulation of the election date. Can anyone doubt that the current debate within the government party, and between it and the Governor of the Bank of England, on interest rates, or the debate and negotiation on economic and monetary union with our European partners—both decisions being crucial to the country's future prosperity—are not being pervasively and daily influenced by consideration of the various options of the date of the general election?

We have a curious system. It is said that the British contribution to world civilisation is to invent games; that we have a genius for inventing games. I cannot believe that this is one of our better contributions. What would people think about a race in which the Prime Minister is allowed to approach it with his running shoes in one hand and his starting pistol in the other? Can that be thought to be fair in any real sense? Let alone it being unfair, is it suited to the complexity of the modern world?

Business and industry require predictability and rationality so that they can function effectively. They do not want the second-guessing and gamesmanship to which we are exposed with a floating-date system, with the consequences of what the Financial Times last week described as the "election blight on economic policy". I refer the noble Lord the Leader of the House to the leader published in the Financial Times last Friday.

A fixed date every four years, as in Germany and the United States, or every five years, as with the European Parliament, would be infinitely superior to a floating date. I readily acknowledge that one should not over-emphasise the virtues of a fixed-term parliament. It is not a panacea that will solve all problems. No one ever will or should try to take politics out of electioneering, or to take the economics out of politics; but at least with a fixed-term parliament and a set date for elections both would be in proportion and in their proper place.

The problem is sometimes raised—I am sure that it will be raised by other speakers in the debate—that if a parliament has ceased to be viable, there has to be some escape hatch through which an earlier election can be sought. That problem is not insoluble. In the Bundestag in West Germany that problem is handled by providing that any vote of no confidence must also involve an expression of positive support for an alternative Chancellor. Both parts of the proposition of that constructive vote of confidence are voted on together. It is only when that procedure fails and in exceptional circumstances—as in 1972, which is the only case in 40 years in West Germany—that under Article 68 of the West German constitution a straight vote of no confidence is taken and the parliament is potentially dissolved earlier; but even then discretion remains with the German president to use a 21-day cooling-off period to see whether there is an alternative Administration within the Parliament.

The consequence of making it more difficult for politicians to call elections when it suits them, and making them, like everyone else, conform to certain rules and expectations, is that elected politicians cannot then rush for the exit, however much it may happen to suit them. They are forced to consider whether there is an alternative government within their midst. That could become important if there were to be a balanced parliament some time in the future. Your Lordships may think that I am predicting that outcome from these Benches, but it is important to note that even with the first-past-the-post voting system we have balanced parliaments from time to time. If there were to be electoral reform, we should probably have them more often. In 1964 and 1966, and between the two elections in 1974, there was the inevitable temptation under our system for the Government to try to play for time and avoid the necessity to muster the full confidence of a long-term Parliament. If we had a fixed term, the House of Commons would ultimately control its own destiny. I mean the House of Commons as a whole and not merely the Prime Minister.

What is the public's attitude to that reform? There is irritation in the country which may perhaps in some quarters —possibly among frequent television viewers —border on fury at the pre-election war of nerves and the premature and sometimes nearly hysterical electioneering which is going on at a time when we understand we may be months or even a year away from a general election. It is an example of crying "wolf!" If we carry on like that, we shall begin to devalue the whole political process and the election itself, whenever it finally comes.

It is not surprising that a MORI opinion poll carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust and called the "State of the Nation Poll" a month ago showed that there was over 2:1 support among the public for a fixed date for general elections. Fifty-six per cent. supported it, 24 per cent. opposed it and 20 per cent. did not know. Interestingly, among young voters£ 18 to 24 year-olds—the majority was 3:1. Fifty-nine per cent. supported it, with only 19 per cent. opposing it.

Speaking from these Benches, I feel that it will no doubt occur to some noble Lords that this is part of a wider constitutional reform agenda. Again, I wish to acknowledge that a fixed term parliament would connect on the economic front with Liberal Democrat proposals for greater independence for the Bank of England, both of them promoting greater stability of economic management.

Equally, I wish to acknowledge that a fixed term parliament would connect well with a more open and rational system, were we to reform our electoral system, have proportional representation and reform parliamentary procedures. Ultimately, however, the arguments for a fixed term parliament stand free and unconnected with any other considerations. I maintain that it would be a worthwhile reform in itself.

I do not level my criticism at the present Prime Minister in particular—it is a game that has been played by all who have held that office—but why should the prime minister of the day have peculiar and particular powers over the date of the general election? Is it fair? Is it rational? If not, could it readily he reformed? If the answers to those questions are that it is unfair, it is irrational and it could readily be reformed, then I believe it is a proper matter for Parliament to consider.

On Sunday, the Observer newspaper called in a leading; article for a levelling of the electoral playing field and an end to what it called "this absurdity". I look forward very much to hearing the views of other noble Lords who will speak in the debate. In that spirit, I beg to move for Papers.

3.32 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, that this is not a new subject. It is trotted out from time to time, together with proportional representation and other nostrums which appeal particularly to those on the Liberal Democrat Benches. However, it has been thrashed out again and again in our history. So far, at any rate, it has not succeeded in establishing itself as a sensible variant to our constitutional system and its workings.

The reasons for this are fairly clear. It is very difficult indeed to relate a system of parliaments of a fixed length of time to a system under which the government of the day, if they lose the confidence of another place, either have to resign or appeal to the electorate for a new mandate. It is all very well to refer, as the noble Lord did, to the system in the United States, but there the presidency and headship of the government are the result of direct election from the electorate. Any disagreement that may arise—as it often does—between the president and Congress cannot in any event produce the resignation of the president. The system is totally different.

I was interested when the noble Lord tried to cite the German precedent. He had to admit that under that system there was an escape clause if it proved politically to be impossible for the strict period of time to elapse for which the parliament was supposed to have been elected. The noble Lord now suggests that, come hell or high water, we should have a parliament elected for four years, regardless apparently of what happens during that period. I do not know why he believes that that would prevent anxiety about elections. On the contrary, surely it would mean that, as the date of the election was known years ahead, for quite a considerable time a general election would cast a shadow of uncertainty over the economy. However, under our system, with only limited notice given of the date of an election, that period—and I agree that it is not a period of great advantage to the economy—is much shorter. Therefore, the noble Lord's proposition would secure that the doubt and uncertainty preceding an election should operate for a considerably longer period than at present.

I come to the more important point of the working of the system. If there is a fixed four-year term for parliament, what happens if the government of the day are defeated on a question of confidence? Must the government resign, although they still have a majority in another place? Is somebody else supposed to take over the government as prime minister, with, ex hypothesi, no majority in another place and so in permanent minority? Surely that is a recipe for futile and ineffective government. It is the merit of our system that the government of the day have to secure and have to continue to secure the confidence of another place. If they lose it, they have the alternative of going back to the people and asking the electorate to restore them to power or of resigning and leaving it to Her Majesty to send for the leader of the next largest party. That is a far more flexible and effective system.

Then we ask your Lordships to consider, if we have a fixed duration for a parliament, what is to happen if the government of the day lose on major issues of confidence. One need not look at this solely theoretically. What would have happened in 1966 if, with their minute majority and all the difficulties they had to face, the Labour Government had not been free to appeal to the electorate for support? Whether or not one welcomes it, that appeal was granted. After the 1966 election, there was a government with full authority to govern and a full majority.

What would have been the situation in 1974 when Mr. Heath felt unable to stand against the onslaught of the miners and wished to appeal to the electorate? The fact that his appeal was not successful is surely the best possible evidence of the flexibility of our system. In a situation in which the government of the day face real difficulties and problems, an immediate appeal to the electorate was and is possible.

If we accept that the electorate is the body with ultimate authority, it seems to me extraordinarily unwise and undemocratic to produce a system under which—whatever happens in parliament, politics or public affairs—that electorate is mute, helpless and can do nothing until the four-year period has elapsed. I can conceive of nothing more calculated to produce a breakdown in the system of parliamentary government.

That is why I personally regard the proposal so delightfully put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, as dangerous. Our system works with admirable flexibility. There is a major issue and Members of another place have to face the question of whether they will support the Government, whether they believe the Government are right in what they are doing, or whether Members are prepared to see a change of government and, very likely, a general election to support and secure that change.

That is what happened in 1966 and 1974. I shall not weary your Lordships by recapitulating other episodes of our history. It has happened throughout the whole working of our system. It occurred in 1911 when the original Parliament Act—to a certain extent that has been in our minds recently for other reasons—was passed. The Liberal government of the day properly dissolved Parliament and appealed to the electorate for support for their policy of reducing the powers of your Lordships' House. That was the right and constitutional way to proceed. They could not have had any justification for passing that Act unless they had obtained the assent of the electorate. A fixed four-year term would mean that one would eliminate entirely the possibility of the government of the day referring a contentious and important matter to the electorate for their decision.

The noble Lord discussed all kinds of difficulties which certainly occur in a pre-election period. However, I believe that those difficulties would occur to a greater extent if the election date were certain and if one knew months and months ahead that, for example, 10th October or 15th September were the election date. A pre-election situation would occur, not as the noble Lord suggested for a shorter time, but for a much longer time than under the present system because the election date would be universally known well in advance.

A system of a fixed four-year parliament where the parliament could not be changed during those four years would give us the worst of both worlds. Undoubtedly there would be more of the worry and uncertainty of a pre-election period and the government of the day would be denied the opportunity to appeal to the electorate for support for their policies. Above all, one would deny the electorate the right to be consulted and the right to decide major and contentious issues. With great respect I must say that I hope we shall hear no more of this discussion about parliamentary terms being fixed with absolute rigidity. I hope we shall appreciate the flexibility of our present system and appreciate that in this respect, as in so many others, it is a system of which we should be proud.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I support the Motion put forward so impressively by my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham. We have just heard a contrary view from the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. The noble Lord is well known to us as a compelling orator. In taking the opposite view he used all his skills of oratory. He made two points. I say with respect that I consider his first point totally invalid. He represented that my noble friend had not accepted that if, during a fixed term, a government were to lose a vote of confidence, that government could not continue in power. It was not my impression that my noble friend ever suggested that. Any government who lose the confidence of Members in another place would inevitably have to go to the people. There is no doubt about that, and I believe that that is what my noble friend said.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, as the noble Lord challenged me, I shall reply to him. I did not say that a defeated government would have to remain in power. I said that either the government would have to remain in power or the Opposition could take office without a majority. The noble friend of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, did not say that if a government were defeated, they would have the right to dissolve. I ask the noble Lord to deal with the following point. If that is now the story —although it was not the story of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham—what would be the position as regards elections? There would be an additional election. Does the four-year period run from that election or does the government run on for a couple of years, say, until the end of the original four-year term?

Lord Ezra

My Lords, on the latter point, I should say that if a new government were elected, they would run for their elected term which would be four or five years as agreed in the new arrangements. There is no question whatever: if any government were to lose a vote of confidence, that would be an occasion for turning to the electorate to test public opinion. That was the first point the noble Lord made.

Secondly, he said that the flexibility of our system has worked over the years and therefore we should continue with the present system. All I can say to that is that the time comes when one needs to learn from the experience of others. We may be the mother of parliaments—that is a wonderful role to have—but we have many children. There are many other parliaments which have adopted other systems. Who are we to say that the system adopted in Germany, France, Belgium or Holland, where fixed term Parliaments apply, is in any way inferior to our own? On the contrary, those countries have had more stable governments and more stable policies than we have had in recent years. They have benefited from that. We should look seriously at the proposition.

I wish particularly to consider the economic implications of our present system. Does the uncertainty created by our system of not knowing exactly when an election will be called—leaving aside the Question of lack of confidence—jeopardise the economy and make its conduct less satisfactory? That is a perfectly fair and proper question to ask. The present position is that for at least a year before the term of a government expires, speculation begins and uncertainty is generated. While that may be of interest to the bookmakers, such uncertainty and speculation are of no interest whatever to business. Uncertainty weakens confidence and therefore business operations suffer. Worse still, it gives rise to all kinds of fanciful speculation. I draw your Lordships' attention to The Times of 16th May. On the first page of that esteemed newspaper a heading stated: Major ready to defer election to help Lamont". That may or may not be true. We do not always have to believe what appears in the press. But it is extraordinary to discover that the newspaper also reported that Mr. Patten, the chairman of the Conservative Party, was said, to be keen to see early interest rate cuts to bring down mortgage payments and induce a feeling of economic wellbeing, so keeping open the option of an October election". Those were two totally contrary propositions. A usually reliable newspaper informed us on the one hand that the Prime Minister supported the Chancellor in seeking to defer the election, but on the other hand informs us that the chairman of the party was keen to keep the option of an early election open. Who knows what validity any of those propositions contained? However, particularly since Sir Bernard Ingham has gone to press, we are familiar with the way non-attributable press briefings work in this country. It is difficult to believe that there was not some non-attributable press briefings which led to those reflections in an important newspaper.

I do not know whether it is right that we should be subjected—and that the business community in particular should be subjected—to these extreme uncertainties as regards the Government's economic policy. Economic policy is far too important to be manipulated a year or more ahead of an election. If we had a fixed date, everyone would know the date the Government were going to the polls, and every government approaching the end of their term would be justified in making their best efforts to persuade the electorate that they should be re-elected. That is the stuff of democracy. What is not necessarily the stuff of democracy is to have a number of false starts and a number. of uncertainties. Are the Government going to cut interest rates in order to have an early election, or are they going to listen to the advice of the Governor of the Bank of England and defer interest rate cut s in order to strengthen the currency and go for a later election? What is the lesson to be learnt from that by business? What is it to do about its investments? Investment these days depends very much on the cost of money. Is the cost of money going to be made cheaper now or later? Will it be made cheaper now in order to have an early election or later in order to have a more distant election? That certainly does not seem to me to be the right way to run the business of the country.

If we had a fixed term, consistent policies could be pursued. Everybody would know when the election was to come, leaving aside Questions of confidence. The Government could organise their policies in such a way—and they would be perfectly entitled to do so —as to achieve the maximum impact by the date of the election. Governments are, of course, human and in a democracy we would expect them to do everything they could to be re-elected. However, to have the opportunity of manipulating their policies in order to choose a propitious date in my opinion is no longer relevant to the way in which modern democracies are run. It is certainly not done on the Continent.

It is difficult to see who gains from the present situation. Governments do not necessarily gain. In recent history governments have made mistakes about the dates on which they have sought re-election. Certainly, business does not gain from the protracted uncertainty. I believe that the public become confused and eventually bored, which is not good for democracy.

To have a clear date on which the renewal of the people's mandate to the government of the country or a change of government is determined seems to me to overcome those basic uncertainties. Therefore, I very much hope that your Lordships will regard this as an opportunity seriously to review one of the aspects of our generally very satisfactory political system which may now have reached the time when it could, with advantage, be changed.

3.52 p.m.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, two major points were made against the proposition of my noble friend by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. The first was that the four or five-year period would be, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, described it, absolutely fixed. The noble Lord misunderstood my noble friend. That was never his suggestion. In fact he specifically denied that the four or five-year time was absolutely fixed. It could be changed if the Government lost a vote of confidence. It would then be open for Parliament to be dissolved and new elections held. The points were made well by my noble friend Lord Ezra, and I have no doubt that my noble friend Lord Holme will return to the matter when he speaks again.

The second major point was that the period of uncertainty would be even longer if we had fixed terms than if we retained movable dates for general elections.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, since the noble Lord referred to my argument perhaps I may ask whether he is saying—as I did not understand his noble friend to say—that under the proposals the government of the day would retain the right to have a dissolution if defeated in the other place whether or not the four-year term was up. Was he saying that?

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, no. Emphatically my noble friend did not say that the Prime Minister and the governing party should have that right. He said that Parliament should have that right. That is the point of what we are saying. We do not deny that we are taking away the privilege of the Prime Minister to decide such matters. We justify that on democratic grounds, on grounds of practicality and on the grounds of removing the uncertainties which my noble friend Lord Ezra mentioned.

The second point which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, made was that the period of uncertainty would be greater if there were four or five-year fixed terms. That argument cannot stand up. We do not for a moment deny that prior to a fixed-term election the parties will not resort to their party games. We are not so naive as that. If an election were required statutorily in October next we accept that Mr. Major would, as now, postpone awkward decisions, announce personally the banning of dangerous dogs and keep unpopular Ministers off television. We agree that all the things that are going on now would go on if there was a fixed term for an election. However, we say that the prime minister can only play that trick once during the period of a parliament. As the position now stands he can start playing those tricks in the first year of government, in the second year, in the third, fourth or fifth year of government. Research would probably show that over the years one-third or half of the period of a parliament has been marked by uncertainty caused by not knowing whether or not the prime minister is going to call an election.

Here I disagree slightly with my noble friend Lord Ezra. I think that it does pay the governing party to have an indeterminate date. It pays more now because of the greater accuracy and comprehensiveness of public opinion polls which register not only the present and future standing of the political parties but also the relative popularity or unpopularity of particular courses of action. Undoubtedly it pays.

It does not pay the opposition. I look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. It may be that the Labour Party will put a brave face on this, but the fact is that the system bears particularly hard on the chief opposition party. It must prepare for a general election not three or fourth months before a statutory date; it must prepare for a general election three or four months before practically any date in the calendar. It cannot afford to be taken by surprise.

We see the effect of that now. Issues such as health and education are not discussed on their merits but are treated simply as an election football with parties accusing each other of lying and so on. That reinforces the already widespread feeling that politicians and political parties are simply out for themselves and say and do things not for the public good but simply as a short-term exercise in an effort to improve their election prospects.

I find an extraordinary lack of arguments of substance against the proposal. The proportion of Conservative and Labour Members of this House who are prepared to speak against it in this debate is remarkably low. All honour, therefore, to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. However, that limits somewhat the duties of those who are to wind up the debate.

I can think of three classes of people who gain from the present system. The first class has been referred to as the bookmakers who like to make a book on the date of the general election. There is a widespread feeling, which I believe is shared in all parts of the House, that if misfortune is to fall upon anybody it might just as well fall upon the bookmakers.

The second class of person to gain from the present system are the political journalists. We should not assume that what the political journalists write about the possible date of a future general election is any more interesting or valuable than what they would have written about something else if we had fixed term parliaments. My view is rather the opposite. I think that what they write about the possible date of a future general election is even less valuable and interesting than what they write about other subjects.

The third class of people who profit are prime ministers. We must ask ourselves what chance there is of enacting any reform which prime ministers and governing parties think is not in their interests. The answer is that while they think that it is not in their interests, the reform will not be enacted. Water does not flow uphill, nor do governing parties support constitutional reforms that lead them to have fewer members in the other place.

What, then, can we do? There is good hope because the electors are already increasingly alerted to the truth. It is slowly entering the minds of thoughtful Conservative and Labour people that if they support the reforms—not only reforms regarding a fixed term but electoral reforms—instead of opposing them, that will help their ratings. I believe that before long we shall see the Labour Party, or the Tory Party, or both, seeing the light on those constitutional reforms. Better still, we shall see a government partly or wholly Liberal Democratic in nature and we shall then have a constitution which is fairer and more practical and democratic.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may put a question to him. I do so because he indicated dissatisfaction with the interest being shown in the debate by Members sitting on this side of the House. I can assure him that I have listened with great attention to the arguments that he and his colleagues have put forward. They do not seem to me to hold water. I therefore feel bound to put this point to him. Once he admits that a parliament might be dissolved before the four years have expired, is he not arguing simply for a reduction in the period of a parliament from five years to four years? That is a perfectly reputable argument whether you agree with it or not because, if he remembers, one of his predecessors reduced it from seven years to five years.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, I think that noble Lords who occupy that Bench have once again failed to understand the case put by my noble friend. We are not saying that a parliament should necessarily go for four or five years. We are saying that new elections should be held only with the positive support of parliament and not as a result of the tactical decision of the prime minister.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the Motion refers to the practice in many other democracies. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, said that some countries have adopted systems other than ours. They may be right and we may be wrong. Looking at research work which was undertaken in connection with lower chambers in other countries, we see that 25 have fixed periods of four years in office; 24 have fixed periods of five years in office; only four have a fixed three-year period; and two have a six-year period, but there are none longer than that.

Reference was made to one or two countries. Perhaps I may elaborate on that aspect. Countries with a statutory four-year term of office for their lower Chambers include Germany, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain. Those with a five-year term of office include France, Canada, India, Ireland, Luxembourg and Italy. I understand that most if not all of Close countries provide for an earlier dissolution should that be considered desirable. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, rightly said that the position in the United States is different, but there are fixed terms for members of the Senate and for members of the House of Representatives. In so far as the executive president has to stand every four years, that is almost a fixed term too.

The Labour Party has not declared any straightforward Policy on this issue. Members on the other side of the House may smile, but we have clearly stated our policy review in a document of 88 pages. It was revised in March of this year to a document of 51 pages, taking changed circumstances into consideration. I mention those facts in order to indicate the care and attention that the Labour Party has exercised in this matter and the fact that it has put down its proposals in black and white so that people can see exactly what its future programme is. Without referring at length to recent arguments, there is no need for people to use unparliamentary language about Labour Party statements. I hope that no one will make such references to the documents produced by the Labour Party.

The Motion deals with one aspect of suggested democratic change. The Labour Party's document incorporates issues designed to develop democracy for the individual and the community. It includes proposals not for a Bill of rights, but for a charter of rights. A separate document of 16 pages is devoted to that important Question.

In addition, noble Lords are aware that the Labour Party has appointed a working party to look into the Question of electoral reform, of which I and my noble friend Lady Hollis are members. It has an open mind and will determine exactly what recommendations to make the Labour Party's National Executive Committee. I stress that point because, as I said earlier, the Labour Party has no declared view on the Question of fixed parliamentary terms. I have therefore been given complete freedom to present a personal view.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, has done the House a service in bringing forward this matter For consideration. I am inclined to go towards the proposal for a fixed term, a view that is shared by quite a number of my colleagues. I shall endeavour to put the arguments for both sides.

Reference has been made to the MORI poll, an important poll in which people are clearly asked whether there should be a fixed parliamentary term, thus removing a government's power to choose the date of the election. If my memory serves me correctly, there were not 24 per cent. "Don't knows" but only 5 per cent. "Don't knows". I understand that 56 per cent. were quite definitely in favour of a fixed term. That is the view of a large number of respondents. Whatever one thinks about opinion polls, everyone recognises that MORI is an efficient and well-conducted polling organisation.

Only as recently as last Friday, there was a debate in the other place on constitutional reform which was opened by Mr. Archie Kirkwood. He gave details of the MORI poll on the state of the nation and referred to the fact that, as has been said, more than half the respondents were in favour of a fixed parliamentary term. Strangely enough, the debate took five hours —longer than we shall take this afternoon—and covered 82 columns. Save for the reference made by Mr. Kirkwood and for the speech made by my honourable friend Mr. Tony Banks, no other speaker referred to that important Question. The Minister spoke for 53 minutes, but he made no reference to that point. Mr. Banks reminded the other place that in February 1987 he introduced into Parliament a Private Member's Bill to provide for a fixed parliamentary term.

What are the arguments for change? First, the present system confers an undue and unnecessary power on the prime minister of the day. Secondly, it also confers a distinct advantage on the party in office. I acknowledge completely —so must anybody who thinks clearly about the matter and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, does so—that with a fixed term parliament there must be provision for an election in the event of loss of confidence; that is to say, a vote of lack of confidence in the Government. There must be provision for an election if the country is in a state wherein Parliament finds it almost impossible to operate. However, it must be done by consent of the House of Commons, by resolution by the House of Commons and by nobody else.

As for opposition to any change, it is argued that in effect by virtue of the Parliament Act 1911 the United Kingdom already has fixed-term parliaments in that a parliament may not continue beyond five years. In practice most elections seem to be held in this country at four-yearly intervals. It is argued that to introduce a fixed parliamentary term would undoubtedly mean an increase in the amount and duration of electioneering. That was the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. My personal view, which is shared by a number of colleagues, is that even without a fixed parliamentary term there is already a substantial degree of electioneering. That intensifies until the government decide to call an election. We are going through a period of electioneering now and have been for some months.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said that the system works with admirable simplicity. For whom? I have been the national organiser of the Labour Party and because we were in opposition we have not known when to spend money, not knowing how long we had to undertake a campaign. We had to ask: dare we fund a campaign over the next three months? We might find that no election was called and have to find money for another period of three months. The same thing will happen to the Conservative Party when it is in opposition, as it will be very shortly. The system works with simplicity if one is in government and can decide when to have an election and when to prepare for it. That is simplicity.

I do not believe that any prime minister solely should have the power to determine when there should be an election. I take that view not from any party political angle but considering the essence of democracy and the rights of Parliament. Why should the prime minister be able to decide on an election when he or she feels that it is the best time for his or her party? The prime minister in fact does not decide the matter alone; he or she discusses it with colleagues. Therefore a cabal decides when there will be an election and indeed when there will not be an election. The time may not be good for an election.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, says that mistakes may be made in preparing or not preparing for an election. But why should it be possible for economic and financial matters to be manipulated in order to assist such a decision? It is no good saying that these things do not happen and that there is no economic or financial manipulation. I have been in politics now for 61 years and I know that every party, including the Labour Party, will decide when is the best opportunity to have an election and if necessary will work towards that end. What is the best time not to have an election? Mistakes may occur when deciding that Question. Once past a certain point there is no return. This Government will find, when they have passed a certain point, that there will he no possibility of return. Therefore, everything will be done in a certain number of months to try to put right some of the terrible economic messes in the country and make some financial adjustments.

Reference was made to this issue in the leading article in Sunday's Observer. Rather than read just one sentence to the House, I should like to end my remarks by quoting the whole of one paragraph: Our present ramshackle electoral system, which allows a Prime Minister to call an election whenever it suits him within a five-year period, is an absurdity in a modern economy and looks more and more out of touch with democratic developments elsewhere in Europe. The case for fixed term parliaments, subject to a Government retaining the confidence of the House of Commons that is the important point— is a powerful one. If an election has to be held every four years, legislation could be progressed more efficiently". That surely is a point that has not been made but which needs to be emphasised. It goes on: Whitehall, industry and the business community could plan ahead, and—no less important—the electoral field would be levelled. All this, alas, seems likely to remain wishful thinking until we have a Government committed to electoral reform". I do not believe that this issue needs to be linked to electoral reform and proportional representation. It is an issue that needs to be considered on its own. Speaking for myself, I hope that fixed-term parliaments will be introduced into this country at the earliest opportunity.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, this debate will linger in my memory if only for the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. He said that the Labour Party has not declared any straightforward policy on the issue. Not only on this issue. I humbly suggest.

We ought to be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for having initiated what has turned out to be a short but very interesting debate. He will not be surprised to learn that I do not agree with the conclusions that he has reached. I certainly do not believe that it is a very great mischief if people bet on the date of a general election. At the end of the day it depends on what is meant by fixed term parliaments. That is why it is quite difficult to follow some of the arguments advanced during the course of the afternoon. It is also the reason why I take with a pinch of salt the replies given to pollsters. I cannot believe for one moment that those who are asked whether they believe in fixed term parliaments understand all the niceties of the matter and all the distinctions which people have tried to draw today.

It could be said that Parliament has a fixed term under our present system, in the narrow sense that there is an upper limit beyond which a parliament may not run without a change in the law. Very few democracies have fixed term parliaments in the sense that there is no possibility of a dissolution before x number of years have expired, with no circumstances under which that term of years can be extended. Japan, Norway, the United States of America and possibly Switzerland are the only examples among Western or Western-syle democracies. Many other countries with what we would recognise as a democratic system of government make provision in their law or constitution for an early dissolution of their parliament or legislature in certain circumstances. Indeed, every single member of the European Community has a parliament with a fixed duration of four or five years; but earlier dissolution is possible in every single case, including Germany, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, acknowledged. The dissolution is usually effected by the head of state on the advice of the prime minister or head of the government, not because parliament itself decides that it wants to dissolve itself, as was suggested ought to be the case by the noble Lords, Lord Mayhew and Lord Underhill.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He referred to West Germany. Although he is quite correct to say that it is the president and head of state who grants the dissolution, the chancellor—in our terms the prime minister—has to put the proposition to a vote of the Bundestag that there should be an election. It is on that vote and that vote only that the matter goes forward to the president.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, my understanding is that there can be a dissolution by the president if the Bundestag fails to elect a chancellor or if there is the loss of a vote of confidence. But that is only one country among all the countries of Europe. In Austria, the parliament can be dissolved by the president. In Belgium, if the government have lost the confidence of parliament they can request the King for a dissolution. In Denmark, the monarch dissolves parliament on the advice of the prime minister of the day. In France, parliament can be dissolved by the president after consultation with the prime minister. In Greece, parliament can be dissolved by the president in circumstances where there is a loss of confidence in the government. In Ireland, the president can dissolve parliament on the advice of the prime minister of the day and has no power whatsoever to refuse to dissolve parliament when the prime minister so advises. Parliament is dissolved in Italy on the advice of the president. In the Netherlands, the monarch dissolves parliament it the two chambers are in conflict.

It is difficult to think of a single case which matches the formula that is being put forward from the Liberal Democrat Benches. Many countries allow their parliament to prolong its own life, but that, as with ourselves, is usually in wartime or in another national emergency.

The circumstances in which a parliament can dissolve itself or seek a dissolution by the head of state obviously vary from country to country. Most commonly perhaps early dissolution is allowed if the government lose a vote of no confidence. If I have understood the noble Lord, Lord Holme, correctly, this would be allowed under the system which he envisages.

However, it is not difficult to think of other circumstances in which an early dissolution of parliament would be desirable, if not essential, for the good of the country. It is quite conceivable, for example, for a government with a workable or even large majority to lose the confidence of the electorate or lose confidence in themselves and yet survive any vote in another place. There would justifiably be calls on all sides for such a government to resign and for a general election to be called. I am sure your Lordships would agree that it would be wrong for a parliament or government who are clearly dead in the water to be forced to linger on until their allotted term is at an end. That would be bad for the country and bad for democracy.

It is also conceivable that a general election may be desirable following a change of prime minister. The example of 1955 may be apt. Sir Anthony Eden sought a personal mandate at the 1955 general election after he had taken over from Sir Winston Churchill. The parliament elected in October 1951 had run for only three-and-a-half years. At the time it seemed only right that he should be able to go to the country, perhaps because he was taking over from such a dominant personality as Sir Winston and the new government were bound to be very different from the old. I cannot remember at that time that there was the slightest feeling in the country that it was wrong that Sir Anthony Eden should go to the country and seek a mandate of his own.

Lastly, it seems right that a government should be able to seek a dissolution if they find themselves or will find themselves unable to govern effectively because they lack a majority. That is where we are bound to disagree most fervently with the case put forward from the Liberal Democrat Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, argues that a government in those circumstances should seek the co-operation of one or more of the other parties. However, I do not believe for one moment that the experience of the Lib/Lab pact is all that encouraging. Which really is better? Is it better for a government unable to govern to go to the country to try to obtain a new mandate or for the same government to spend their time fixing up deals in which the unfortunate electorate has no say whatsoever? In the same way they would have no say about which government were to be formed under a system of proportional representation, the whole issue being carved up behind closed doors by the party managers. I say this. The people not the parties should decide who governs.

I adopt the argument of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. There can be no merit whatsoever in rendering the electorate mute and helpless in a situation such as that created by the 1974 election. What conceivable benefit would have come to this country if after the February 1974 election Parliament had to try to form a series of shifting coalitions in order to keep that parliament alive?

I have set out some of the circumstances—there are no doubt others—in which a government should be able to call an early general election. They provide compelling reasons for the law not to say that a parliament must last for a fixed term. It could of course be argued that a system of fixed term parliaments could allow for earlier dissolution in a prescribed range of circumstances. That is what is being suggested by the Liberal Democrat Benches. If so, in what true sense could the term still be said to be fixed?

The fewer the number of exceptions to the fixed term rule, the greater the risk of keeping alive a parliament for no reason. The greater the number of exceptions, the more difficult it is to understand what on earth would be gained by introducing a fixed term in the first place. The system would not differ in reality from the one that we have at present. That is the dilemma.

No one is suggesting that there should be a fixed term parliament. Those on the Liberal Democrat Benches suggest that there should not be a fixed term parliament but fewer circumstances—they suggest a list of them—in which there could be a dissolution prior to the expiry of the five years. That is the difficulty. How long should the list be? It is difficult to compile. The longer the list, the less realism there is in the debate, because eventually one has an unnecessarily long list which makes a mockery of suggesting that one has a fixed term parliament system.

It has been suggested by noble Lords that our present system gives an unfair advantage to the governing party and that the power it has to dictate the date of dissolution leads to distortion of the economy and of the process of government in general. I do not deny that the ability to decide when a general election is to take place represents a significant tactical advantage to the government of the day. However, I have noted that no opposition have ever sought to relinquish this advantage on coming to power themselves.

It is also true that governments tend to introduce unpopular measures early in their term of office and arrange their programme so that measures which are more likely to court popularity with the electorate come to fruition when a general election is in prospect. The introduction of fixed term parliaments would not change that. Indeed, it might make it easier for the government of the day to plan their legislative programme to their own electoral advantage if they knew with certainty when the next election would take place.

It is difficult to argue that any post-war general election has been timed primarily in order to catch the opposition unprepared. In every case impending dissolution has been well canvassed. In many if not all these cases of course the opposition were themselves pressing the government to go to the country.

It is then said that speculation and uncertainty about the timing of the next general election are inherent in the present system, with unnecessarily protracted electioneering by the political parties and harmful economic effects. I am not sure whether one can prove such harmful economic effects under our system as were suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. However, it is absolutely certain that a fixed term parliament would not in itself ensure stability and continuity of economic policy. As my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter pointed out, under a fixed term system the possibility of the return of, say, a Labour Government could cast a baleful shadow over the economy for months before the fixed election date. Why should not a government be tempted to try to rig the economy, thereby endangering long-term economic prosperity, in order to have the maximum support when the fixed term ends? I find it difficult to accept the argument advanced by the noble Lord.

With regard to party electioneering, one has only to look at what happens in the United States, where the government's term of office is rigidly fixed. The American system is so different from our own that comparisons can be misleading, but campaigning there never seems to stop. Once one presidential election campaign is over, the parties prepare themselves for the next.

What it all amounts to is this. A strong system of fixed term parliaments, rigidly adhered to, would be undesirable. On the other hand, a weak system, incorporating numerous qualifications and exceptions, would differ little from the system that we have at present. That system, for all its defects, is the one which this Government, like those before them, prefer.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for the seriousness with which he has taken the debate. He will hardly expect me to agree with his conclusions. I also thank all other noble Lords who have taken part. I was grateful for the support of my noble friends Lord Mayhew and Lord Ezra. The comparative statistics given by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, were extremely helpful. Any sadness that I feel because the Labour Party have not yet embraced the policy of a fixed-term parliament is more than compensated for by the fact that the noble Lord and several of his noble friends informed us that they now support the concept of a fixed-term parliament. I hope that the contagion will spread rapidly through the noble Lord's party so that it too can support us on the reform.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the Leader of the House, raised a substantive point which I wish to clarify. We on these Benches propose fixed-term parliaments. However, if a parliament becomes unviable there should be an escape hatch. What should it be and how should it be triggered? Rather than repeating the debate, I say merely that it should be a last rather than a first resort. It should be possible only by an affirmative vote of Parliament so that the onus rests with Parliament and not with the prime minister of the day. That system works in West Germany where only once in 40 years has that exceptional circumstance been resorted to rather than being the stuff of everyday politics, as is the case in this country. Since the Second World War British parliaments have lasted on average for three and a half years against a theoretical maximum time of five years.

The subject is important and will not go away; we shall hear more about it. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.