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The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill [Bill 8 of 2021-22] was introduced on 12 May 2021.

The Bill would repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) and provides that the maximum term of a Parliament (rather than the period between general elections) shall be five years.

The Bill’s Explanatory Notes confirm that its effect is to “enable Governments, within the life of a Parliament, to call a general election at the time of their choosing”. It does not envisage that there will be a role for Parliament in deciding when general elections are held.

The Bill provides that the timetable for the election of a new Parliament is triggered by the dissolution of the old Parliament.

The Bill includes an ouster clause that states that questions relating to the use of the powers, preliminary work on dissolution and the extent of the powers cannot be questioned by the courts.

Progress in the House of Commons

The Bill was given a second reading on 6 July 2021.

The House of Commons completed the remaining stages of the Bill in a single day on 13 September 2021. The Bill was not amended in Committee of the whole House; and given a third reading by 312 votes to 55. Before the Bill was considered in Committee, the House debated and decided against instructing the Committee that it would have leave to make provision relating to the prorogation of Parliament.

Between its introduction and second reading, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee held an oral evidence session with the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, Chloe Smith. After the session, the Committee pursued a number of questions with the Minister, in writing. The Minister’s reply was published by the Committee on 7 September 2021.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

The FTPA required the Prime Minister to make arrangements for the Act to be reviewed. A Joint Committee was appointed to undertake the statutory review of the FTPA in November 2020. It also scrutinised the Draft Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (Repeal) Bill, which was published on 1 December 2020.

The Joint Committee’s report was published on 24 March 2021.

Issues raised at second reading

Seven notable issues featured prominently in the second reading debate:

  • the legislative approach to “reviving” a prerogative system;
  • the implications of enabling Prime Ministers (in effect) to call early elections unilaterally (given who that constitutionally empowers);
  • whether the ouster clause was necessary and desirable;
  • whether, and when, the Sovereign may refuse a dissolution request;
  • whether the House of Commons should retain a role in early dissolution;
  • whether the maximum term should be four, rather than five, years; and
  • whether, and if so, how, the election timetable should be shortened.

“Reviving” the prerogative

At second reading, MPs debated how a prerogative system would be returned to should the Bill become law. Chloe Smith, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, confirmed the Government’s view that “the prerogative power can be revived but … express provision is needed, and clause 2 does exactly that”.

Implications of prerogative revival

Although the formal power to dissolve parliament would rest with the Sovereign, there was a shared understanding that, for practical purposes, early dissolutions would be initiated and invariably secured by the incumbent Prime Minister. It was recognised that this represented a clear shift in power away from the House of Commons directly controlling when early elections happen. A justification offered for this in debate was that a decision to dissolve a parliament early would in short order lead to power being returned to the electorate: when they vote in the ensuing general election.

Is the ouster clause necessary and desirable?

MPs disagreed about whether an ouster clause was necessary to prevent the courts determining questions about the dissolution of Parliament. Some argued that the courts would be extremely unlikely to intervene to strike down the dissolution decision of the Sovereign regardless of whether an ouster clause was present. For them the ouster clause risked provoking, rather than avoiding, conflict between parliament, the executive, and the courts.

Importance of the role of the monarch

Both in the context of the ouster clause and more widely, MPs considered the circumstances in which the Sovereign might, exceptionally, refuse a dissolution request. Some argued that the existence of a genuine monarchical veto would be sufficient to ward off judicial involvement in the process.

The Government has declined the Joint Committee’s recommendation to set out when the Sovereign may reasonably refuse a dissolution request.

Retaining a role for the House of Commons?

MPs debated whether it was desirable that the House of Commons would no longer have a direct say or vote on whether Parliament would be dissolved for an early general election. Some argued that a parliamentary vote would be a better mechanism than an ouster clause to ensure that dissolution decisions avoided review by the courts. They also suggested it would have the additional benefit of avoiding drawing the Monarch into matters of party political controversy.

Should the Committee consider the prorogation of Parliament?

Chris Bryant tabled a motion to instruct the Committee of the whole House that it should “have leave to make provision relating to the prorogation of Parliament”. If agreed to, such an instruction would allow the Committee to debate and decide upon amendments or new clauses relating to prorogation even though it was not within the scope of the Bill.

The House debated whether to give the Committee of the whole House this instruction. It rejected the motion that would have instructed (allowed) the Committee of the whole House to debate prorogation by 323 votes to 192.

Remaining stages in the House of Commons

The House of Commons completed the remaining stages of the Bill in a single day on 13 September 2021. The Bill was not amended in Committee of the whole House; and given a third reading by 312 votes to 55.

Debate on amendments and clauses stand part focused on five issues:

  • whether the Prime Minister should be able to request a dissolution or whether parliamentary approval should be required;
  • whether a new Parliament should have to meet within 14 days of polling day;
  • the length of a Parliament and the gap between elections;
  • the length of the statutory election timetable; and
  • the timing of extraordinary elections to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru.

A previous Library briefing described the Bill and the background to its introduction, see Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill 2021-22 (CBP 9267).

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