Published: Fri, 12 Oct 2018
Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011
Why was it introduced (political/sociological context)?
Before the Act came into force, parliament could be dissolved at any time by royal proclamation and or by virtue of the royal prerogative. During the last century, this was not really practised by the monarch. Historically however, it was the monarch who called parliament into session to
and then subsequently dissolved it once the monarch had reached a decision, or obtained the advice needed from parliament. The monarch’s control over parliament limited the scope of parliament’s power to act without the request of the monarch.
Overtime, the monarch became increasingly reliant on the advice of parliament and that of the prime minister. Thus, the dissolution of parliament was stayed for longer and longer periods. When the Septennial Act 1715 came into force, the dissolution of parliament was required to occur after a maximum term of seven years from the date it had been summoned. This period was later reduced to five years. The monarch continued to practise the dissolution of parliament after several years of it being summoned to honour the statute, as parliament was prohibited from reaching its statutory length. However, as parliament became more important in its role to advise and make political decisions, its dissolution only became necessary so that the electoral results could be determined and a new parliament formed. Thus, the dissolution of parliament became necessary so that the public could vote for ministers, having little involvement from the monarch. The prime minister was then given the authority to dissolve parliament on a day of his or her choosing, so that elections could occur. After the results of the elections, parliament would resummon and continue to stand for 5 years, until the next election. The legislation surrounding this process and practice was outdated and needed to be revised.
What was the aim of the Act (legal context)?
The aim of the Act is to simplify the process of dissolving parliament before an election occurs and to determine polling days for general parliamentary elections. It is necessary to dissolve parliament before an election because new ministers of parliament may be voted in and there may be a change of prime minister. Thus, parliament will again be informally summoned once the election results have been confirmed. As the monarch no longer holds prerogative over when parliament is summoned, it was necessary to enact legislation that reflected the current practices of a summoned parliament, as although the monarch did have prerogative, the royal prerogative is no longer practiced. It was recognised that there was a need for consistency as to when parliament would dissolve. While it was practiced that the dissolution occurred every five years, the day of its dissolution was left to the decision of the prime minister of the time, which proved to be inconsistent over the years. It was decided that a set date for the dissolution of parliament would mitigate the uncertainty of when the dissolution would occur, ultimately affecting when the election would be held. Before the legislative changes, the dissolution of parliament could occur five years and 22 days after the previous summons, or longer. The legislation prescribes that the dissolution not more than two months later, which creates more certainty for voters.
What main changes did it make to the law?
The Act prescribes a set date in which parliament will dissolve, being the 17th working day before the polling day, for the next election. Apart from the automatic dissolution of parliament that occurs before an election, under s 3(2) of the Act, parliament cannot be dissolved under royal prerogative. Section 3(2) also repeals the Septennial Act 1715, thereby formally overriding traditional practices to reflect the norms and functionalities of parliament today. Section 1 also provides a specific day for the dissolution of parliament, being the first Thursday in May, every five years, which follows the polling day that the previous parliamentary general election was held on. Section 2(3) stipulates that an early parliamentary election may only be held after the House of Commons passes a motion amending the electoral timetable. By requiring a motion to be held, any change in electoral dates is voted on by a majority and forms part of a process that prevents the electoral timetable from being changed easily, to keep in line with the purpose of creating certainty and consistency for the public. Since the enactment of the Act, parliamentary general elections must be held every five years as of 2015, unless a vote of no confidence in government or a two-thirds majority vote of the House of Commons proposes a motion, triggering an election at any time.
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