Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011
|Act of Parliament|
|Long title||An Act to make provision about the dissolution of Parliament and the determination of polling days for parliamentary general elections; and for connected purposes.|
|Introduced by||Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister|
Lord Wallace of Tankerness, Advocate General for Scotland
|Territorial extent||United Kingdom|
(England and Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland)
|Royal assent||15 September 2011|
|Commencement||15 September 2011 (Whole Act)|
|Repeals||Septennial Act 1716|
Status: Current legislation
|History of passage through Parliament|
|Text of statute as originally enacted|
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The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (c. 14) is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that received Royal Assent on 15 September 2011, introducing fixed-term elections to the Westminster parliament for the first time, as a result of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition agreement which was produced after the 2010 general election. The Act sets out the timetables for parliamentary general elections and dissolution of parliament. While there can be a fixed term with next general election being held the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election, there are also situations where the election can still be called earlier.
The two most important situations where a general election can be earlier are a vote of no confidence in the government, and a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons.
It has been argued that the Act therefore changes little in practice, since the Prime Minister (PM) can still, so long as at least a portion of the opposition agrees, call a snap election. Others argue the PM cannot call a snap election, since the opposition can prevent an election by abstaining in the vote.
- 1 Background
- 2 Reasons for changing the previous system
- 3 Main parties views on need for change, fixed terms and frequency
- 4 Provisions
- 5 Debate
- 6 Critiques of the Act
- 7 Uses of the Act
- 8 Attempted and contemplated uses of the Act
- 9 Other effects of the Act
- 10 Proposed repeal
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
Before the passage of the Act, Parliament could be dissolved by royal proclamation by virtue of the Royal Prerogative. This originally meant that the English, and later British, monarch decided when to dissolve Parliament. Over time, the monarch increasingly acted only on the advice of the prime minister; by the 19th century, prime ministers had a great deal of de facto control over the timing of general elections.
Apart from special legislation enacted during both World Wars to extend the life of the then current parliaments, Parliament was never allowed to reach its maximum statutory length, as the monarch, acting on the advice of the prime minister of the day, always dissolved it before its expiry. The longest Parliament preceding the Fixed-term Parliaments Act not exceptional in this way, 51st Parliament of John Major 1992–1997, lasted 4 years, 11 months and 2 days.
The five-year maximum duration referred to the lifetime of the parliament and not to the interval between general elections. For example, while John Major's government lasted 4 years, 11 months and 2 days; the period between the 1992 and 1997 elections was 5 years and 22 days.
Reasons for changing the previous system
The previous system had existed for a long time, reasons for changing the system include:
- The previous system tends to give an advantage to the prime minister of the day, who can choose to call an election at the most advantageous time for him or her. The problem with this reason is that the governing party is in the best position to try to change this but they appear to have to act against their own self interest in removing an advantage for themselves.
- There might be a period of uncertainty, before an election is called, which some[who?] say damages the conduct of politics. An example from before the change, was the feverish speculation that Gordon Brown intended to call a snap election in 2007 to take advantage of a poll surge shortly after succeeding Tony Blair as prime minister. In the end the poll lead was cut and he did not call an election until near the end of the five year maximum, some two and a half years later.
- If an election results in a coalition government being needed but this quickly unravels for whatever reason a new election might be needed which is both expensive and may not resolve such a situation. New legislation might improve on this situation by allowing time for a confidence motion which may allow a new coalition to be formed.
- The anti self interest to change problem can be somewhat changed if there is a coalition or confidence agreement. The Act may make a coalition government more stable: It has been argued that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed by the then coalition government to underpin its stability by making it harder for either party to bring the government down and force another election. A coalition partner that would prefer a new election to continuing the existing coalition might be dissuaded from taking action because of the effects: Withdrawing support may not cause an election instead a paralysed minority government might continue and the blame for this might fall on the disaffected party for withdrawing their support. Under the old system the blame might instead fall on the Prime Minister for failing to call a new election. Tabling a motion of no confidence would likely be electoral suicide, appearing to say we were incompetent in government. This might be avoided by an opposition party tabling the motion but the party might not get such co-operation or their actions might still be tainted with appearance of saying they are incompetent. Even if a no confidence motion was tabled and passed, a new coalition might be formed so instead of getting the election they want, they might have taken action that resulted in them being removed from power.
Main parties views on need for change, fixed terms and frequency
Prior to the 2010 election, the Conservatives' manifesto made no mention of fixed term parliaments. The Labour manifesto said it would introduce fixed term parliaments, but did not say how long they would be. The Liberal Democrats are well known to believe that they would do better under proportional representation rather than the first past the post system and having not been in power are strongly in favour of electoral reform. Their manifesto pledged to introduce fixed terms but they wanted a four-year fixed term.
The 2010 election resulted in a need for a coalition and Conservatives and Liberal Democrats negotiated a Coalition agreement. The Conservatives had 210 MPs and the Liberal Democrats 62 MPs. With far fewer MPs, the Liberal Democrats did not get their way on major electoral reform like proportional representation, but a commitment to a fixed-term parliament was included in the coalition deal.
Section 3(1) of the Act originally stated that Parliament should be automatically dissolved 17 working days before a polling day of a general election. This was subsequently amended by the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 to 25 working days. Section 1 of the Act provides for such polling days to occur on the first Thursday in May of the fifth year after the previous general election, starting with 7 May 2015.
The Prime Minister is given the power to postpone this date by up to two months by laying a draft statutory instrument before the House proposing that polling day is held up to two months later than that date. If the use of such a statutory instrument is approved by each House of Parliament, the Prime Minister has the power, by order made by statutory instrument under section 1(5), to provide that polling day is held accordingly.
Section 2 of the Act also provides for two ways in which a general election can be held before the end of this five-year period:
- If the House of Commons resolves "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government" (a motion of no confidence), an early general election is held, unless the House of Commons subsequently resolves "That this House has confidence in Her Majesty's Government". This second resolution must be made within fourteen days of the first. This provision recognises that in a hung parliament it might be possible for a new government to be formed, commanding a majority.
- If the House of Commons, with the support of two-thirds of its total membership (including vacant seats), resolves "That there shall be an early parliamentary general election".
In either of these two cases, the Monarch (on the recommendation of the prime minister) appoints the date of the new election by proclamation. Parliament is then dissolved 25 working days before that date.
Apart from the automatic dissolution in anticipation of a general election (whether held early or not), section 3(2) provides that "Parliament cannot otherwise be dissolved". The Act thus removes the traditional royal prerogative to dissolve Parliament, and repeals the Septennial Act 1715 as well as references in other Acts to the royal prerogative. The royal prerogative to prorogue parliament – that is, to end a parliamentary session – is not affected by the Act.
Under section 7(4)–(6), the prime minister is obliged to establish a committee to review the operation of the Act and to make recommendations for its amendment or repeal, if appropriate. The committee must be established between 1 June and 30 November 2020, and the majority of its members must be members of the House of Commons.
When introducing the bill to the House of Commons, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, said that "by setting the date that parliament will dissolve, our prime minister is giving up the right to pick and choose the date of the next general election—that's a true first in British politics."
The government initially indicated that an "enhanced majority" of 55 percent of MPs would be needed to trigger a dissolution, but this did not become part of the Act, being replaced by the two thirds requirement.
Proposed amendments that would have limited the fixed terms to four years, backed by Labour, Plaid Cymru, SNP were defeated. This was in the Liberal Democrats manifesto but superseded by coalition agreement.
Section 4 of the act postponed the Scottish Parliament election that would have been held on 7 May 2015, moving the election day to 5 May 2016 to avoid it coinciding with the general election in the United Kingdom.
Critiques of the Act
According to the political scientist Colin Talbot, the Act makes minority governments much more stable than in the past: events that previously might have forced a government out of power—such as defeat of a Queen's Speech, or loss of supply, or defeat of other important legislation, or a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister rather than the government as a whole—cannot formally do so.
Alastair Meeks[who?] argues that as well as removing the Prime Minister's ability to set the election date at a time of their choosing, the Act also has other knock on effects that can have an effect of quite a radical change to the constitution. It removes a potent weapon: the ability of the PM to make a vote on a policy a matter of confidence in the government. Also, parties aspiring to power should now be very wary of forming unstable minority governments, which can easily get trapped in office, and look instead to form stable coalitions. 
Uses of the Act
The 2015 general election was held on 7 May 2015, the first use of the Act to dictate the timetable.
2017 general election
On 18 April 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to call a general election for 8 June 2017, bringing the United Kingdom's 56th parliament to an end after two years and 32 days. She required two-thirds of the Commons (at least 434 MPs) to support the motion to allow it to pass. Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour Party indicated he was in support of an election. The motion was passed the following day by 522 votes to 13 votes.
As the Act requires scheduled elections to take place on the first Thursday in May, the date of the next general election after the 2017 election (assuming no earlier election is called) will be 5 May 2022, meaning that the term is one month short of five years.
Attempted and contemplated uses of the Act
2018 proposed motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister
On 17 December 2018, the Labour Party tabled a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, Theresa May. As this was not a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government in the form set out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, its passing would not have resulted in a general election being called. Arguing that this would have no effect because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act Theresa May was able to call it a stunt and deny it any time for debate.
The SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party submitted an amendment to the motion which, if passed, would have changed the motion to meet the requirements of the act. The government subsequently announced that the motion would not be given parliamentary time.
The following day (18 December 2018), the SNP, Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party tabled a new motion of no confidence in the Government in the form set down in the act. This was the first such motion to be tabled under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
2019 motion of no confidence in the government
Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, tabled a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government on 15 January 2019, after the House of Commons rejected Theresa May's draft agreement on Brexit. Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the SNP supported the decision. The motion failed, the ayes having 306 and the noes 325. Nigel Dodds, Westminster leader of the DUP, expressed the opinion that it was in the national interest for his party to support the government in the motion.
Other effects of the Act
In 2016, in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, a petition was created on the Parliament petitions website that called for a general election after former British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that he had had investments in an offshore trust. After the petition had passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures, the government response cited the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in its reply, and stated that "no Government can call an early general election any more anyway".
In 2017 the journalist John Rentoul writing in The Independent newspaper argued that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act indirectly caused the election loss of Theresa May's majority in the 2017 election. Technicalities made her choose an election campaign of seven weeks, 2–3 weeks longer than usual, which, Rentoul argued, lost her the majority.
In April 2019, after the speaker had ruled that Theresa May's Brexit deal could not be brought back in substantively the same form to the same session of parliament, it had been speculated that one way around this, would be to end the current session and start another session. This now seems unlikely due to Theresa May being unsure that she would be able to get a Queen's speech approved or at least not without negotiating a coalition or renegotiating current confidence and supply agreement. Consequently it is planned for the session to be extended until Autumn 2019. This suggests that not approving a Queen's speech continues to effectively be similar to a no-confidence motion despite speculation that the Act has considerably narrowed the definition of a no-confidence motion to exclude such a situation. Nonetheless, the defeat of a Queen's speech motion is not in itself sufficient to meet the requirements of the Act for an early general election.
The Conservative Party manifesto at the 2017 general election proposed repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. To do so would require a new Act of Parliament. If the duration of parliaments is to be limited, arrangements for this would need to be included in the new Act because the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 repealed pre-existing legislation governing the duration of parliaments.
The reasoning for this proposed repeal appears to be that commentators considered the Act to be a failure after the 2017 early election was called. This showed that a prime minister wishing to call a general election could, as Theresa May did, dare their opposite number to refuse a general election – something widely believed to be electoral suicide.
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- Blick, Andrew (2015). Constitutional Implications of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011. "The UK has no written constitution. Yet entrenchment in some forms has had a part in UK constitutional conceptions. Moreover, in recent times this role has grown. Some precedent for supermajorities, for instance, has appeared through the provision in section 2 of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 for early general elections following support from two-thirds or more of MPs."
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- Official text of the act, as enacted
- Robert Blackburn (1989). "The summoning and meeting of new Parliaments in the United Kingdom". Legal Studies. 9 (2): 165–176. doi:10.1111/j.1748-121X.1989.tb00392.x.