Fixed terms should be four years not five, say Constitution Unit

Ryan Gallagher
3 September 2010

The British government should introduce fixed term parliaments that would remove the Prime Minister’s power to decide the date of the next election, a report published by the Constitution Unit has today recommended.

The Constitution Unit, a think tank based at UCL, say the fixed term should be four years, as opposed to the five proposed by the coalition government in May.

“The norm in all other Westminster parliaments which have introduced fixed terms is four years, as it is in Europe,” said the Unit’s director, Professor Robert Hazell.  “To avoid clashes with the devolved and European elections the government should also consider holding general elections in October.”

Critical of the speed at which the coalition government has proceeded with their plans to introduce fixed terms, Hazell warned “this legislation should not be rushed.”  Fixed term parliaments, he said, “are a big constitutional change.  Yet the government’s Bill has been introduced with no public consultation, no Green or White Paper, no draft bill.”

The Bill proposed by the coalition contains a clause that allows for an “early and immediate” dissolution of parliament if two-thirds of MPs cast a vote of no confidence, as is currently the system in both Scotland and Wales.  MPs would also have the power to remove the government on the basis of a simple majority vote, and would have fourteen days to find a replacement or parliament would be dissolved and an election triggered.

“This is aimed mainly at majority governments”, says Professor Hazell.  “[A two-thirds vote for mid-term dissolution] should make it impossible for them to call an early election without significant cross-party support.  Even if it is sometimes circumvented by engineered no confidence motions, it should help to establish a new norm.”

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, however, “is very difficult to entrench” according to the Constitutional Unit, because “a future government and parliament can always amend or repeal it.”

“One way of entrenching the Act”, they suggest, “could be to give the Lords an absolute veto over any amendment under the terms of the Parliament Act 1911.”

On September 7th, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will begin conducting a series of hearings on the Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, and the Lords Constitution Committee will undertake an inquiry into fixed term parliaments in the autumn.

Crucially, they must ask, with four years the international norm, why are the coalition so keen on five?  Could it be, as Anthony Barnett has suggested, that five years is how long they believe it will take before their projected economic growth begins to come to fruition?


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