Control Freakery?

Lord Tyler

Just in case anyone outside the Palace of Westminster has been fooled by the recent deceitful diatribes that “MPs are lazy and given up on their Parliamentary duties” or “this final fifth year has turned us into a Zombie Parliament” I offer the following exchanges in the Lords today:

Lord Grocott:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on Parliament of the next general election date having been fixed as 7 May 2015 since the enactment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD):

My Lords, it is a little too soon to reach definite conclusions on fixed-term Parliaments. The Government believe that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act has a number of benefits. It curbs prime ministerial and, therefore, executive power by preventing the Prime Minister of the day from calling an election on his or her own schedule. It has also assisted with Parliament’s work planning. The Prime Minister of the day will be required to appoint a reviewer to evaluate the Act in 2020.

Lord Grocott (Lab):

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister shared the nation’s palpable sense of gloom this morning when the broadcasters and the newspapers united in reminding us that there are 100 days of campaigning left until the general election. Do fixed-term Parliaments not inevitably lead to inordinately long election campaigns, as many of us predicted, and, I am afraid, to the past its sell-by date House of Commons that we have at present, with very little to do in either House? Does the Minister at least acknowledge that there is a growing view, on both sides of this House and in the Commons, that the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a serious mistake?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, the noble Lord may perhaps have missed the report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee last year, which stated:

“Our evidence has overwhelmingly argued that the greater certainty about the length of a Parliament provided by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is a positive development, and in particular has created opportunities for better planning by the Government and Civil Service”.

I cannot understand why he prefers the situation of 1964-66, which led to the putting off of decisions and the devaluation of 1967; the two elections of 1974, which led to a Labour Government entering into an IMF programme; the dithering by Mr Callaghan in 1978; or that wonderful experience in 2007 when Gordon Brown kept changing his mind as different opinion polls came out. That was not good Government.

Lord Cormack:

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Tyler. As one who fought all the elections to which my noble friend the Minister referred, will he accept that those of us with that sort of experience have evaluated? We do not need to wait until 2020. This is a disservice to the constitution and the sooner it is consigned to the legislative rubbish tip the better.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, the noble Lord demonstrates that his conservatism on constitutional matters is as deep as that of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It was in the Labour Party’s manifesto for the last election that it would legislate on a fixed-term Parliament—as indeed in others. This transfer of, what was after all, executive power to Parliament was, one would have thought, an extension of our democratic system and a limit on prime ministerial power.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab):

My Lords, the Minister said that it is too soon to decide whether this is a good thing. The sad thing is that the other place seems to be working part-time, so why are the Government not using their planning for better use of Parliament during the extended period?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, that is something that we need to learn about five-year Parliaments. There are some very good proposals from the Institute for Government and from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee about how best to use the fifth year of a Parliament to discuss some of the issues that any Government will have to deal with—for example, Green Papers on the future of the National Health Service, et cetera. That is something which, in a future five-year Parliament, perhaps with another stable coalition Government, we might do. We have delivered stable government through difficult economic times for five years, unlike the Labour Governments of 1974 to 1979, and others. That is a very major advantage.

Lord Tyler:

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that there are 19 government Bills still in play in this Session and a further 14 government-backed Private Members’ Bills? There are a number of draft Bills and more than 90 statutory instruments, so this Parliament still has a lot of work to do. Does he agree that anyone who attended our very interesting debate yesterday on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill or indeed the debate on the Infrastructure Bill in the other House can see that Parliament is working really hard at the moment? Any suggestion that this is a zombie Parliament is ridiculous. Has my noble friend also noted that the Labour Opposition in the other House constantly complain that they have not enough time whenever a programme Motion is recommended?

Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

My Lords, I think that we stand a good chance this time of avoiding the dreadful experience of the wash-up which we have had when elections are called at short notice and the rushed election campaigns which follow.

I have played a part in every General Election since 1964.  I cannot recall any occasion when it was not evident that a General Election was not imminent months before.  It is not a new experience to have to suffer long-winded party games in those weeks.  Sometimes of course – 1978 and 2007 come to mind – Prime Ministers raised expectations that they were going to pick their best chance, as leaders of their party, to dissolve Parliament, and then funked it.   There was huge wastage of time and money as a result.

Quite apart from the unprincipled practice of the team captain blowing the final whistle when he or she thought the score would give them victory, the current arrangement of the Fixed Term Parliament Act gives the rest of the country relative clarity, stability and continuity.

It may not suit those control freaks who hanker after the good old days, when the inhabitant of No 10 ruled the roost, but I doubt whether the newly elected MPs in five months’ time will want to hand back this power.


2 comments for “Control Freakery?

  1. Dave H
    28/01/2015 at 3:01 am

    The downside is that we get to put up with electioneering for an extended period. At least if there’s a snap election it only lasts a month. (Even if it is a good idea, I bet that’s a popular sentiment as we get to the last couple of weeks.)

    I don’t suppose any of the contributors to LotB would care to comment on the attempt to sneak the Snooper’s Charter (aka the Data Communications Bill) in as a late amendment to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill in this past week. I would have thought that sort of thing was very undemocratic, to try to avoid all the proper scrutiny especially as it had already failed the process on its own.

  2. Rob G
    21/02/2015 at 5:19 pm

    I don’t think the “electioneering” is actually that much different from last time round, is it? Except that we’ve actually known there *wasn’t* going to be a snap election, so we haven’t had to put up with the “Will he, won’t he?” speculation on top of parties part-launching their campaigns several times over.

Comments are closed.