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Overview of the Act

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 set a five-year interval between ordinary general elections. General elections are scheduled to take place on the first Thursday in May in every fifth year. The next general election is scheduled to take place on 2 May 2024.

The Act includes two mechanisms that could lead to early general elections. The Act specifies that early elections can be held only:

  • if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House or without division; or
  • if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.

The Act put dissolution on a statutory footing. Previously Parliament was dissolved by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister. Now Parliament can only be dissolved in accordance with the Act. However, the Act did not alter the prerogative power to prorogue Parliament.

The House of Commons has considered five motions under the Act. On 19 April 2017, the House agreed to an early general election that took place in June 2017. It rejected a motion of no confidence on 19 January 2019. Before the 2019 general election, the Government failed on three occasions to secure the necessary two thirds majority to trigger an early election under the Act (4 September 2019; 9 September 2019; and 28 October 2019).

The Government subsequently secured the support of Parliament for the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019. This Act set the date of the 2019 general election and treated it as if it were a day appointed by the 2011 Act.

In their manifestos for the general election, both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party called for the Act to be repealed:

Statutory review of the Act and Government plans to repeal the Act

The Act has to be reviewed. It requires the Prime Minister to make arrangements for a committee to carry out a review of the Act and to publish the committee’s findings and recommendations, which can include repealing or amending the Act. A majority of the members of the committee have to be MPs. The Prime Minister has to make arrangements for the committee between 1 June and 30 November 2020. In evidence to PACAC, Chloe Smith, Minister of State, Cabinet Office, confirmed that she expected the arrangements to be made in that period.

On 10 November 2020, the House of Commons agreed to the Prime Minister’s proposal to appoint a joint committee to undertake the statutory review of the Act. Fourteen MPs were appointed to serve on the joint committee. The joint committee will also be asked to report on the Government’s plans to repeal the Act, which will be set out in a draft bill. The joint committee has to report by Friday 26 February 2021.

On 24 November 2020, the House of Lords agreed that a joint committee should be appointed to review the Act and nominated six members to serve on it.

On 26 November 2020, Lord McLoughlin was chosen by the joint committee to be its chair.

The Government’s Draft Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (Repeal) Bill was published on 1 December 2020. The draft bill provides for the repeal of the 2011 Act; confirms that the maximum term of a Parliament (rather than the period between general elections) shall be five years; and contains an express provision to restore the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament.

Alongside the draft bill, the Government published a single-page “draft statement of the non-legislative constitutional principles that apply to dissolution”.

On the same day, Chloe Smith issued a written statement, which outlined the provisions of the draft bill and announced the publication of the summary of dissolution principles.

At its meeting on 26 November 2020, the joint committee issued a call for written evidence on either the operation of the Act or the draft bill; and said that it would take into account evidence that had been submitted to the inquiries undertaken by parliamentary committees recently.

Possible questions for the statutory review

Both the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and the House of Lords Constitution Committee reported on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 in September 2020. Their reports suggested a number of issues that the statutory review committee should consider. PACAC also recommended that “The review committee should be a joint select committee subject to parliamentary approval and not an executive-appointed committee”.

PACAC recommended that the review committee should consider

  • “mechanisms providing the House of Commons with the power to set the date of an early general election” (para 69);
  • “proposals to include the ability for the Government to designate a vote of confidence”, although this could be a “retrograde step” (para 83); and
  • “setting out the power of prorogation in statue” (para 94).

It recommended against attempting to entrench a super-majority for an early election in any proposals to replace the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

The Constitution Committee considered that:

to determine the future of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 a series of linked questions must be answered. These are:

  • Should the length of parliaments be fixed absolutely or should mechanisms allow for early general elections?
  • What should be the maximum length of a parliament?
  • Should the calling of an early general election require the consent of the House of Commons?
  • If the consent of the Commons is required for an early general election, what threshold, if any, should be set for approving the motion?
  • If the consent of the Commons is required for an early general election, should the Commons be asked to approve the date for the election?

These questions are ultimately ones that Parliament must determine.

154. In making those determinations, Parliament may also wish to consider the separate question of whether it should be asked to approve the prorogation of Parliament.

Both the Constitution Committee and the PACAC published responses from the Government to their reports on 8 and 9 December 2020, respectively.

In both responses, the Government reiterated its intention, set out in the draft bill, published on 1 December 2020, to “return to the tried and tested system (where the PM is able to seek a dissolution from the Sovereign at the time of the Prime Minister’s choosing)”.

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