Fixed-term Parliaments

I am working on material for Tuesday’s Second Reading debate on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.  The Bill itself was subject to a critical report by the Constitution Committee.  The report identified problems with the speed with which the Bill was introduced – there is no obvious hurry – as well as with some of the provisions.  One particular problem lies with the definition of votes of confidence – there isn’t one.  Under the Bill, if the House passes a vote of no confidence, and it is certified as such by the Speaker, then the Government resigns and if a new Government is not formed within 14 days a general election is held. 

Clearly, if the House passes a motion ‘That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’ then there is no problem.  However, votes of confidence are not confined to such explicitly-worded motions.  There is even a problem if the House defeats a motion moved by the Government expressing confidence in the Government: the House has not passed a motion of no confidence in the Government but rather negatived a motion of confidence.  However, the real problem arises with motions which do not include the word confidence.  If the Government loses a vote on, say, the Queen’s speech or the Second Reading of – or, more problematic still, a major amendment to – the Finance Bill, does the Speaker certify it as a vote of no confidence?  The Bill assumes the elephant definition – namely, you know one when you see one.  This, though, has the potential to bring a Speaker’s decision into the realms of political controversy.  The Government’s defence is that the Speaker already has the responsibility to certify Money Bills under the Parliament Act 1911.  He does indeed – but the difference is that there is a statutory definition of what constitutes a Money Bill.  The Speaker will be on his own when it comes to a defining a vote of confidence.

This, I fear, is not the only problem with the Bill….

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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4 Responses to Fixed-term Parliaments

  1. Alex Bennee says:

    So in the hypothetical case that the government fails to secure a majority in a critical bill what stops the opposition (or rebels) putting forward a No Confidence motion?

    I assume the main case is backbench rebellions? Once a government looses it’s working majority it is living on borrowed time anyway. Is the worry that rebels may votes against a bill they dislike but not follow through on a No Confidence motion (e.g. turkeys voting for Christmas)? Surely that’s not too different from the government declaring that the bill is key to their manifesto and a matter of confidence and the rebels should either fall into line or bring the government down?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Alex Bennee: You are quite right. One of the reasons for my particular interest is that I published an article on ‘Government Defeats in the House of Commons: Myth and Reality’ published in Public Law in 1978 and which has subsequently been variously republished as a principal source on the constitutional position regarding votes of confidence. It covers precisely the points you make.

      There is the additional point, of course, that there is nothing to stop a government resigning of its own volition, even without the House not having passed a vote of no confidence.

  2. ladytizzy says:

    This sort of thing seems to happen a lot to newbie governments ie they either fail to understand the consequences of manifesto pledges or deliberately ignore them.

  3. franksummers3ba says:

    Lord Norton,

    In almost aspects of my life I actually have rather strong principles but on your blogs I usually simply want to point out the theory of mechanical differences or their historic background. I think the main points over all of history with fixed term versus consensus legislative sessions is this:

    1. Fixed terms make planning easier in countless ways and they lead to better prepared election campigns by parties than the other and thet can be good. They also tend to create a more perpetual and expensive campaign more than the other if they are bot kept in check. They alos are not effective release valves for truly great stress and are typical of a society with a high tolerance for social violence.

    2. Consensus sessions tend to dampen adaptation and debate within parties, they depress radical legislative restructuring when it needs broad support and they can produce a lack of constituency identity if they are badly combined with other factors.

    I am afraid it is never simply a matter of changing one thing in isolation.

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