Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Fixed-term Parliaments

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One of the peculiarities of the British system of Government is that the duration of the Westminster Parliament – i.e. the length of time a Government lasts following a General Election – is not fixed. At present, the maximum duration of a UK Parliament is five years. This is dictated by the Septennial Act 1715 , as amended by the Parliament Act 1911. Under those provisions,  if a Parliament is not dissolved in the period up to five years after the day on which it was summoned to meet, it automatically expires.

The formal position is that the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament before the maximum five-year period is exercised by the Queen, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister. In reality, this gives the Prime Minister of the day considerable flexibility on when he or she ‘goes to the country’ – a decision that may well be determined by the state of the public opinion polls.

A consequence of the creation of the Coalition Government has been the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. This provides for fixed days for polls for parliamentary general elections. The polling day for elections would ordinarily be the first Thursday in May every five years. The first such polling day would be on 7th May 2015.

The Prime Minister is given power to alter, by statutory instrument, the polling day for such parliamentary general elections but only to a day not more than two months earlier or later than the scheduled polling day.

The holding of early parliamentary general elections can be triggered  either by a vote of no confidence in the Government following which the House of Commons did not endorse a new Government within 14 days, or a vote by at least two-thirds of all MPs in favour of an early election. Where such an early election occurs, the next scheduled election after that will be five years from the previous first Thursday in May.

The Queen’s notional residual power to dissolve Parliament will be abolished.

The Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill has almost completed its passage through Parliament and should receive the Royal Assent by the end of June 2011.


Written by lwtmp

May 22, 2011 at 10:29 am

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