I have previously written about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. What is notable is the extent to which its provisions were not that well appreciated at the time and still are not fully understood. Even one academic article on the subject believed that the Queen retained some discretionary powers in respect of dissolution. The Evening Standard this week carried an article conflating the two distinct provisions under which an early election may be triggered. There are stories reporting that, if a minority Conservative government is formed next May, there may be a second election in the autumn. These stories appear not to consider the conditions under which an early election may now be called. Prime Ministerial discretion is not involved. The prerogative power in respect of calling an election is gone. The Queen retains no discretionary powers.
There are only three conditions under which a second election could take place next year or indeed at any point within the five-year term stipulated by the Act:
(1) If the House of Commons passes the motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ and, if within 14 days, no government has been formed and gained a motion of confidence from the House. The motion of no confidence requires only a simple majority to be carried.
(2) The House votes, by a two-thirds majority of all MPs (not simply a two-thirds of those voting), that there shall be an early election.
(3) The Act itself is amended or replaced. (A simple repeal, not stipulating new conditions, would mean that Parliament would continue in perpetuity!) The new Act could add prime ministerial discretion to or in place of the existing two condition and could confer on the Crown the power to decline the Prime Minister’s request.
Under the Act, the provisions are to be reviewed in 2020. However, given the criticisms now being directed at the measure (not least a five, rather than four, year term), pressure for some change may become such as to prompt some change.
There were some good entries for the latest caption competition. One of two readers seemed especially keen to win, judging by the sheer number of entries they submitted. They were certainly some novel and imaginative entries. I suspect Croft’s entry may have been motivated by fact that David Blunkett’s current guide dog is extremely large. Rob Falconer’s was especially original (‘Britain certainly needs its own version of Mount Rushmore, but who can we get for the fourth head?’) and certainly met the criteria for the competition. It was a serious contender. Tony Sands maintained his strategy of working in an element of flattery (‘one of my succinct (and, a’hem famously brilliant) speeches’), believing, correctly, that this would make it a runner. I had a difficult choice between several entries and I realised that in some cases I was making choices between entries from the same person. I was minded to give the prize to D F Rostron for the total number of his entries. However, he wins anyway with a seasonal entry:
David Blunkett: How much do you think we will make if we go carol singing?
Given that my singing is such as to empty a theatre quicker than you can say ‘fire’, I know what the answer to the question would be.
If D F Rostron gets in touch, I will arrange to send his prize.
At the conclusion of the PSA Awards ceremony last week, I was chatting to former Home Secretary David Blunkett – we were at university together and variously get together in support of campaigns (as on citizenship education and the future of the Lords). We were also joined by current Home Secretary Theresa May. I thought the photograph of the occasion would make for an ideal caption competition. The rules remain as for previous competitions: the winner will be the reader who in my view provides the most appropriate witty caption.
Earlier this year, I chaired a cross-party group of parliamentarians to examine the problem of non-registration of British nationals who live abroad. About 5.5 million British citizens are believed to live outside the UK and of these about 3 million are estimated to be eligible to register to vote. Fewer than 1% are registered. In March, we published a report making various recommendations as to how to encourage expatriates to register and to exercise their right to vote.
On Wednesday, I led a short debate in Grand Committee on the report. I was supported by Lords Tyler and Lexden, Viscount Astor and, for the Opposition, Lord Kennedy. For the Government, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, devoted most of his time on what he called ‘cautionary remarks’, rather than engaging with the report and the recommendations. There have been some advances, but there is still more to be done. Given the minister’s failure to pursue positively with what we had to say, we have decided to reconvene the group and do a follow-up report.
The International Development Committee in the Commons is undertaking a brief inquiry into public funding of programmes to support legislatures in developing nations. I was invited to submit evidence and my submission has now been published. It can be read here. The material draws on my work on legislatures, but also my discussions with parliamentarians, not least at the biennial Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians.
Legislatures are often the poor relation of aid programmes and, where there is support from donors, it suffers from lack of co-ordination – some impose conditions which clash with those of other donors – and often a tick-box approach. There is also a tendency to view legislatures without reference to the political systems in which they exist. Focusing on structures is not sufficient to achieve the long-term goal of reducing or eliminating corruption and establishing a vibrant political culture. Creating a Public Accounts Committee, for example, is important – and is something than be ticked off as an achievement – but by itself will not generate a culture within and beyond the Parliament that sustains an effective legislature.
Legislatures are crucial to a democratic system, but there is the danger of neglecting them or, when recognising their significance, treating them as discrete and detached entities. They should be at the heart of any support programme.
I chair the Higher Education Commission, which draws together figures from politics, business, and academe. I co-chaired our most recent inquiry into the financial sustainability of higher education. The report – you can read it here – was released yesterday and attracted notable attention in the press. It was the lead story in the Independent. I did lunchtime interviews for The World at One and Radio5 Live, as well as a recorded interview.
The report argues that the present situation is not sustainable, at least not in terms of the criteria we advance. However, there is no magic bullet. We identified and assessed six options, ranging from a tweaking of the existing system through to lifting the fee cap and differential fees. Each has its merits, but each also has its drawbacks. Our task was not so much as to provide the answer, but to get an informed debate. The danger otherwise is that it will be seen as a problem, but too difficult to tackle. Our starting point was that higher education in the UK is among the best in the world and that we need to ensure that it remains so.
The Wales Bill, presently completing its passage through the Lords, prohibits anyone from serving as both an MP and as a member of the National Assembly for Wales. The provision (clause 3) was agreed between the parties and was about to go through without debate. I put down an amendment to remove the clause. I am against outlawing dual mandates on the grounds that they infringe the freedom of electors to choose who they want to represent them. If they are happy to have the same person represent them in more than one assembly, that is a matter for them. It may be difficult to carry out both roles – the practical argument (advanced by assertion) used to justify the clause – but that is a matter between electors and elected, not something to be forbidden by law.
You can read my speech here. As you will see, no one really engaged with the issue of principle, other than in one case trying to translate the difficulties of the jobs into a matter of principle. I knew I would not get anywhere – the responses were pretty much what I indicated would be the case – but I hope my intervention gives pause for thought. At least afterwards some peers did recognise what I was getting at and also appreciated that there is a value in having members who can keep one legislature aware of what is happening in another.