Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: draft Bill published

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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was enacted as part of the agreement reached between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties, when, in 2010, they formed the coalition government led by David Cameron. The idea of fixed-term parliaments had been around for many years. The problem has been that when a political party becomes a government, statutorily fixed-terms reduce the freedom Prime Ministers have long had to decide when they wanted to call an election would be constrained. Those in power have been reluctant to give up this freedom. (There is of course an overall limit – that an election much be called at least every 5 years.)

In 2011, the creation of the Coalition Government changed the political landscape. It was felt that, without setting a timetable for elections, there could be considerabe political instability if the majority partner in the coalition had the freedom to call an election when the opinion polls looked favourable, which could potentiallyhave left the minority in the lurch. The General Election 2015 was conducted within the framework laid down in the 2011 Act.

In 2017, the statutory framework was shown to be considerably less rigid than the title of the Act might have suggested. Mrs May, who had become Prime Minister in 2016, following the Brexit Referendum, thought good polling figures would give her a chance of establishing a more stable Government than that which followed the 2015 election. She was able to hold an election in 2017 because the Act provided that, where the House of Commons voted by a 2/3rd majority in favour of holding an early General Election. The political circumstances at the time enabled her to achieve that result.

In 2019, as the Brexit negotiations were drawing to a close, the Government – now led by Boris Johnson – wanted to find a way of ensuring that it could get a Brexit agreement through the Parliament. The Parliament was so divided on the issue that three attempts to get Parliamentary approval of a draft agreement failed. Mr Johnson thought that one way out of this difficulty would be to be to hold a general election which, if he won, would put the Brexit Agreement at the heart of Government policy. However, he could not do this because the statutory conditions for getting around the Fixed-term Parliaments Act timetable were not met. He did not have a 2/3rd majority in favour of holding a General Election (the route used by Mrs May) nor had he lost a vote of confidence which could also have triggered the calling of an early General Election.

Instead, he tried to prorogue Parliament – bringing one session to an end and starting a new session. But his purported use of the prerogative power to prorogue, which would have resulted in Parliament being totally shut down for 5 weeks, was ruled to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. (See R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister (Respondent) [2019] UKSC 41.) He finally achieved his goal by getting Parliament to sidestep the Act through the enactment of the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019.

One item in the Conservative Party’s election manifesto for the 2019 General Election was that, if elected, a Conservative Government would repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. In December 2020 the Draft Fixed Term Parliaments Act (Repeal) Bill was published.

In fact, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act contained a built-in mechanism for its own review. Section 7, added during its parliamentary passage in 2011, provided that between June and November 2020 the Prime Minister should arrange for a committee to review the operation of the Act. That committee was established in November 2020, with 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords. It is this Committee, chaired by former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin, that is now considering the draft Bill.

Two parliamentary committees had already reviewed the operation of the FTPA: the Lords Constitution Committee (2019), and the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (2020). Both raised important questions of principle about the whole idea of creating fixed-term parliaments. Was it right, in principle, that a Prime Minister should have the prerogative power be able to choose an election date? Why should general elections not be held within a timetable agreed by Parliament? The policy arguments in favour of fixed term parliaments as well made in an article by Robert Hazell from the Constitution Unit.

One feature of the draft Bill is that it includes provisions designed to prevent the courts from intervening in any decision taken by a Prime Minister to call an election. Two public lawyers, Professor Elliott and Professor Young, have given their views on the Bill including a consideration of whether the Bill’s attempt to restore the Executive’s prerogative power to determine the date for an election also mean that the potential for a challenge in the courts that an exercise of that power has been unreasonable can be eliminated.

Although the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act might at first sight seem like a rather narrow issue, it does raise important policy and legal issues which must be considered both while the current Bill is in draft form, and after any legislation has been enacted.

For further information, see the following articles:

By Robert Hazell at https://constitution-unit.com/2020/12/11/the-fixed-term-parliaments-act-should-it-be-amended-or-repealed/

By Professor Elliott at https://publiclawforeveryone.com/2020/12/02/repealing-the-fixed-term-parliaments-act/

By Professor Young at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/2020/12/04/alison-l-young-the-draft-fixed-term-parliaments-act-2011-repeal-bill-turning-back-the-clock/

Written by lwtmp

February 2, 2021 at 1:31 pm

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