General Election 2017: a short guide

A short guide to what this snap election means for parliament – via Second Reading

General Election 2017: a short guide

The Government intends to seek an early election. Here is our short guide to what it all means for Parliament.

How are early elections called?

There will be a motion in the House of Commons tomorrow to trigger an early election using the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The Act set the date of the last general election on 7 May 2015 and set all future general elections for the first Thursday in May in every fifth year. The next election was therefore scheduled to take place on 7 May 2020.

The Act states that an early election can be held if a motion for an early general election is agreed either by at least two-thirds of the whole House (including vacant seats) or without division (i.e. if it is agreed unanimously.) So tomorrow’s motion will need 434 MPs to agree it to pass. Our Fixed-term Parliaments 2011 paper has more detail on the Act.

When will Parliament be dissolved for the election?

Parliament has to be dissolved 25 working days before Polling Day. The Prime Minister has announced an 8 June election. This means that Parliament will be dissolved on Wednesday 3 May.

The House may Prorogue (suspend but not dissolve) before then.  The Leader of the House has indicated today (18 April) that talks regarding prorogation will follow if the motion is passed tomorrow.

What will happen to Bills currently before Parliament?

Bills can’t be carried over through a dissolution. Any Bill before Parliament that has not received Royal Assent by dissolution will fall. To ensure that essential or non-controversial legislation is passed a ‘wash-up’ period takes place – when the Government and the Opposition reach agreements on the bills or parts of bills that should be hurried through their remaining parliamentary scrutiny. The wash-up procedure is enabled by motions, agreed by the House, which allow for the expedited progress of certain Bills.

How long does this take?

Normally the House of Commons will spend most of a day (or more) on a stage of a bill. However, during the wash-up, when several bills need to be considered in two or three days this is not possible. After consultation with the Official Opposition, the Leader of the House makes a statement indicating how the Government wishes wash-up to proceed. However, the House has to agree to this timetable.

Our briefing Wash-up – Election 2010 explains what happened before the 2010 election.  There was no substantial wash-up period before the 2015 general election as the date of the election was known in advance.

What is purdah?

The term ‘purdah’ means the period of time immediately before elections or referendums when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants and Ministers are in place.  The preface to the General Election 2015 guidance for civil servants, issued on 30 March 2015, sets out the general principles:

  • During an election campaign the Government retains its responsibility to govern and Ministers remain in charge of their Departments.
  • Essential business must be carried on. In particular Cabinet Committees can continue to meet and consider correspondence if necessary, although in practice this may not be practical. If something requires urgent collective consideration, the Cabinet Secretary should be consulted.
  • It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long-term character.
  • Decisions on matters of policy, and other issues such as large and/or contentious procurement contracts, on which a new Government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present Government should be postponed until after the Election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.
When will purdah start and how long will it last?

Purdah is likely to start on the day that Parliament is dissolved until after Polling Day on 8 June 2017.

The purdah period before general elections is not regulated by law, but governed by conventions based largely on the Civil Service Code. Guidance is issued to civil servants ahead of the election. For the 2015 general election it was issued and took effect on 30 March 2015 – the day that Parliament was dissolved.

Conversely, there is statutory guidance for local authorities about publicity during the period just before local elections, whilst the purdah period before referendums is regulated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

Our briefing ‘Purdah’ before elections and referendums (13 April 2017) provides further details.

What about select committees?

A 2017 election means that those select committee chairs who were elected on 10 June 2010 (a list is here) must, if still holding that position, cease to be chair of their select committee on 10 June 2018, unless the House orders otherwise.

An early election and shorter 2015 Parliament means that some select committee chairs will have shorter terms than expected. Standing Order 122A states that: ‘no select committee may have as its chair a Member who has served as chair of that Committee for the two previous parliaments (of whatever length) or a continuous period of 8 years, whichever is the greater’.

A 2015-2020 Parliament would have allowed those chairs elected in 2010 to have a 10 year term.

Will the Manchester Gorton by-election go ahead?

David Lidington MP, Leader of the House, said today in the Commons that he expected that the Returning Officer would cancel the by-election. As it was due on 4 May and Parliament is likely to be dissolved on 3 May, the new MP would be elected to a Parliament which no longer existed.

Erskine May, the guide to Parliamentary procedure, indicates that there is “no statutory provision for cancelling a by-election when a general election is in progress”

The procedure for a by-election starts with a Writ being sent from the Clerk of the Crown (triggered by a Warrant from the Speaker) to the relevant Returning Officer. It is presumed that an acting Returning Officer would consider the Writ to have been superseded if the by-election were due to take place at a date when Parliament had been dissolved, since the MP could not be elected to a Parliament which no longer existed.

Commons Library Briefing Election Timetables, March 2015 (p.16-17) provides more detail.

Will the local elections go ahead as planned?

Yes, the local elections are on a statutory timetable (see our Election Timetables briefing for more info).

Will new constituency boundaries apply?

No. The four boundary commissions (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) are still working through the set cycles of consultation and analysis for their respective boundary reviews. They must complete their reviews and hand their reports to the Government by 1 October 2018.

This process is explained in Commons Library Briefing Parliamentary Boundary Reviews: Public Consultation (November 2016)

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