Lords Committee ‘unconvinced’ by arguments for fixed-term Parliaments

16 December 2010

The House of Lords Constitution Committee has today criticised the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill ahead of its second reading in the Lords. The Committee states that its origins owe more to short-term considerations than to enduring constitutional principles or sustained public demand, and that they are unconvinced by the arguments for moving to a fixed term Parliament.

In their report on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill the Committee challenge the assertions of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg that the Government’s programme of constitutional and political reform, of which this Bill is a key component, will make Parliament more accountable to the people.

They argue that the provisions in the Bill to fix the length of Parliaments to five years would lead to less frequent elections and make the legislature less accountable, not more.

The Committee point out that there have been 18 general elections going back to 1945, with an average Parliament lasting three years and ten months. Under a system of fixed five year terms there would have been four fewer elections in that period.

The report states that five years is too long a period for fixed-term Parliaments and the Government should alter its proposals to a four year fixed term. They state that a five year term is: ‘inconsistent with the Government’s stated aim of making the legislature more accountable, inconsistent with existing constitutional practice and inconsistent with the practices of the devolved institutions and the clear majority of international legislatures.’

The report also argues that fixed term Parliaments could reduce democratic accountability by reducing the possibility of an early election following an exceptional event such as a drastic change in the make-up of a government, if a government was no longer able to govern effectively or if there is a change of Prime Minister.

Indeed, the Committee point out that in the build up to this year's election David Cameron argued that a general election should be called following a change of Prime Minister: something that would not be possible if the proposed legislation were enacted.

Commenting, Baroness Jay, Chairman of the Lords Constitution Committee, said:

"The Committee have significant concerns that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill currently before Parliament is based on short-term considerations rather than long-term constitutional principles.

The majority of the Committee could see no justification for the period of fixed-term Parliaments being set at five rather than four years. The move will reduce the frequency of general elections, and reduce Parliament’s accountability to the public not increase it, as the Deputy Prime Minister has stated is his aim. 
In our view the Government have failed to make the case for such a significant constitutional change and undertook no consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny before they bought the legislation to Parliament. That is extremely regrettable."

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