Fixed Term Parliaments Bill: Lords rejects Commons amendment and reason

19 July 2011

The House of Lords insisted on its 'sunset clause’ amendments to the Fixed Term Parliament Bill requiring each new Parliament to approve the fixing of its term at five years yesterday (Monday 18 July). The Commons disagreed with this group of amendments.

The Bill has been returned to the Commons with this amendment by the Lords re-instated. The Commons will need to decide to accept the amendments or offer a compromise.

The Commons will next consider the Lords amendments when Parliament returns for the September sitting.

Moving Motion A1 insisting on the Lords ‘sunset clause’, Lord Butler of Brockwell explained: ‘The amendment which your Lordships passed would give the next Parliament and subsequent Parliaments the opportunity to decide whether the provisions of this Bill, subjecting them to a fixed term, should apply to them. It does not nullify the Bill. It merely gives future Parliaments the right to disapply it without having to go to the lengths of repealing it.’

Speaking in support of Lord Butler’s motion, Lord Howarth of Newport said that rather than reducing the power of the Prime Minister and increasing the accountability of government to the people, the Bill does the reverse: ‘It secured for this Prime Minister the assurance of a five-year Parliament ... Far from increasing accountability, it reduced the frequency with which electors can be expected to have the opportunity either to throw the Government out or to renew their term at a general election. The typical interval between general elections in most of the 20th century was, we are told, some four years. By extending the term of Parliament rigidly to five years, without allowing the sensible pragmatic flexibility that our unwritten constitution has hitherto permitted, the legislation would make Governments and Prime Ministers less accountable to Parliament, not more.’

Speaking against Lord Butler’s motion, Lord Marks of Henley on Thames said that the amendments, with ‘what might appropriately be called a Lazarus clause’ would ‘kill off the effective provisions in the Act after the next general election automatically and without any parliamentary consideration whatever ... They would then allow one or any number of future Parliaments, by simple resolution of both Houses, to reinstate the legislation for a single Parliament at any time and at any stage of the Parliament in question. That would not then be a fixed-term Parliaments Bill; it would be no more than an unedifying muddle with no clarity for the electorate.’

Seeking to test the opinion of the House, Lord Butler explained: ‘The Minister said that the Select Committee on the constitution in another place endorsed the proposal, but I shall quote what your Lordships' committee said. If I may say so, your Lordships' committee contains distinguished constitutional lawyers from all parties, who trump those who are members of the constitution committee in another place. They said:

"We take the view that the origins and contents of this Bill owe more to short-term considerations than to a mature assessment of enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand".

The committee continued by saying that,

"the balance of the evidence we heard does not convince most of us that a strong enough case has yet been made for overturning an established constitutional practice and moving to fixed-term Parliaments".

There could hardly be two more damaging sentences. Our national constitution is too important to be tinkered with as a bargaining chip in the negotiations of a temporary coalition. The British people have decisively prevented that from happening to the voting system for the House of Commons. They are not to be given a chance to express a view on this constitutional change, so it falls to your Lordships to insist that the Government and the House of Commons refrain from making a permanent change and give future Parliaments and Governments the opportunity to make these decisions for themselves.’

The House of Lord agreed to Motion A1 by 251 votes to 219, defeating the Government by 32 votes.

Further information

The Bill, which had its third reading in the House of Lords on 25 May, sets a fixed day for general elections for the UK Parliament to be held as the first Thursday in May every five years, and sets the length of UK Parliaments as a five-year fixed term.

The exact wording of a Bill must be agreed on by both Houses. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the Bill is sent back to the Commons. A Bill may go back and forth between each House – known as ‘ping pong’ – until both Houses reach agreement.

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