Parliament Act v Fixed-term Parliaments Act

One reader reached the site recently by googling the query as to the difference between the Parliament Act and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.  The Parliament Act 1911 provided that the maximum life of a Parliament was five years ( previously it had been seven years).   The life of a Parliament could thus be shorter than five years, but no more than five.  Within the five-year limit, a Prime Minister could request a dissolution and a new election.  A crisis or a Government with a small or no majority at all could result in a short Parliament – as in 1974 when there were two general elections – whereas a Government with a secure majority would tend not to seek an election until four or five years had elapsed.  If it was doing well in the opinion polls, it tended to go after four years and if it was in trouble in the polls it preferred to wait the full five sessions in the hope that the situation would improve.

The effect of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is to remove the discretion of the Prime Minister in the timing of the election.  Convention has given way to statute.   The Act stipulates that the next general election will take place on 7 May 2015 and thereafter on the first Thursday in May every five years.  The only circumstances in which an early election can take place is if a vote of no confidence is carried by the House of Commons (and no new government, enjoying the confidence of the House, can be formed within 14 days) or if the House carries a motion that there shall be an early general election, with at least two-thirds of all the members of the House voting in favour of the motion.

In other words, the Prime Minister can no longer go to Buckingham Palace to request that the monarch call an election at the time of the PM’s choosing.  I know there is a view that the PM could manipulate an early election by getting his own MPs to back (or abstain on) a motion of no confidence, but that would require getting to work within a different Palace….

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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3 Responses to Parliament Act v Fixed-term Parliaments Act

  1. Rich says:

    I don’t remember: was there a debate during passage about restricting prorogation during or adjournment to a date outside the 14-day period or even after tabling the motion? You would think that the 2008 example in Canada where Prime Minister Stephen Harper advised the Governor-General to prorogue Parliament just days into the first session because the opposition announced they would table a non-confidence motion. You would also think that the officials who drafted the bill would have been aware of the situation and of the New South Wales and Victorian fixed-term acts, both of which provide that the legislature can’t be prorogued before or adjourned beyond the end of the relevant period.

    Are you aware of any appetite to fix the problem by Private Members Bill in either House?

  2. Stephen MacLean says:

    Many reformers — whether progressives on the left or populists on the right — are infatuated with the idea of fixed-term parliaments, but I find little to recommend the innovation and much to condemn it.

    Without the reform, parliaments were still held to a maximum of five years duration and any prime minister who abused his prerogative to ask the monarch for a dissolution of Parliament would be punished subsequently by the people. With the reform, however, ministries that have ceased to function either effectively or competently will act instead as ‘zombie’ governments.

    (One can possibly retort that the Gordon Brown ministry was long overdue to be put out of its misery, and carried on without the benefit of a fixed-term parliament act — thus underlining the futility of ‘organic’ parliaments — but I would counter that this points to a far more fundamental problem with contemporary government MPs, who see their duties to lie in support for their parties, and not in being responsible to their constituents by holding the Executive to account.)

  3. maudie33 says:

    What an excellent post, Stephen Maclean. My sentiments entirely.

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