§ 11 am
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
I am pleased to introduce this debate, especially when there is a growing view both inside this place and outside that by stealth the status and role of Parliament are being eroded. That is not any reflection upon any particular Administration, but it has been happening increasingly over recent decades.
Those of us who are jealous of our parliamentary role of scrutinising the Executive and voting supply want to see an opportunity to restore these parliamentary rights and duties. That is in line with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) when she was the Leader of the House and discussing the reform of Select Committees. She saidthat (the Jopling Reforms) really only tinkered with the problem…There was little in Jopling to make parliament produce better legislation; there was nothing at all to make MPs more effective in holding the Executive to account. Those tasks will be Labour's true project for parliament.One of the exciting challenges for this Administration is to leave an enduring legacy of having given Parliament new opportunities to scrutinise the Executive.
As we look back relatively recently, one of the great legacies—one of the few legacies that I would refer to from the period when Margaret Thatcher was in office—was the St. John-Stevas reforms, which created the present Select Committee system, and thank goodness for it. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will leave an enduring legacy, having further developed the Select Committee system during this Parliament.
Of course, the Select Committees are ancient. They have been used many times and it is wrong to suggest that they are a new idea. They have come into their own more recently as, inexorably, government has demonstrated a rapacious appetite in putting through legislation, minimising debate and exercising its role as the Executive. That is in the nature of things, human nature being what it is. However, our duty is to monitor, control, scrutinise, cajole and often criticise the conduct of whatever party is in government.
I want to canvass what are basically cultural changes that reflect the attitudes of Members and of others who are interested and active in politics and journalism. We must change our attitudes to the role of Members of Parliament. All too often people come to this place—I am talking also of our friends and loved ones—and say, for example, "I hope it won't be long before you are a Minister," or "It won't be long before you are a Minister." There is the presumption that in politics in the United Kingdom promotion means becoming a Minister.
I hope that we can create a culture whereby there is an alternative. For example, a Member might aspire to become the chairperson of a Select Committee; in other words, to head up a Select Committee. I think that that will come about, but I would like to move on the process.
Part of moving it on is the question of resources. One of my good friends said, "For goodness sake, Mackinlay, don't suggest that we should have more money." I will not make that suggestion because I think that the disparity between Ministers' pay and that of Members is constitutionally wrong. Basically, there should be no disparity. I am not advancing the idea that Chairmen of 245 Select Committees should have more pay, but I think that they need more resources and the facilities that go with office. I am talking not of trappings but facilities that will enable them to be better leaders of Select Committees.
I shall give one example. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, in the nature of his work—and that of his predecessors—has to visit many embassies and attend many functions. It is a waste of my hon. Friend's time and that of others, and wrong, that they must compete in the taxi queue when they need to be at the embassies of China or South Africa, for example. There should be the resource of a pool car, not as a matter of status but as common sense.
It is clear that Select Committee Chairmen need better office accommodation and personal back-up staff. Our friends in the Clerk's Department are clearly underresourced. Many of us recognise, particularly as we put more and more demands upon them, that we are not voting additional resources to their Department to enable them to meet the new tasks and challenges that we present to them as we become more diligent and more enthusiastic proponents of the Select Committee system. I hope that during the life of this Parliament these matters will be considered, followed by action and additional resources.
There is a case also for Members who serve on Select Committees to be given some additional resources. We are faced with the marshalling of papers and preparation for Select Committee hearings. I find that this preparation presents an enormous task. I feel sometimes that I have not gone into the Committee Room as sufficiently briefed and prepared as I would like to be because of a lack of sufficient back-up facilities. I hope that that might be considered.
I should also like to float an idea on which I have not concluded my view. The best Select Committee report, of course, is one that has been reached by consensus. However, we must recognise that sometimes there might be occasions for minority reports, not necessarily on a partisan basis. In exceptional circumstances where demonstrably there is a strongly held, reasonable but minority view, it may well be that there should be resources available to facilitate the minority. I stress that I am talking about a minority of view, not a party minority. Indeed, the view could be held by a member of the majority party.
I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider another matter that they might discuss through the usual channels with leaders of other parties: the selection of members of Select Committees and their Chairmen. I accept that I am a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs by patronage. I could be removed from it by the same source. I think that within the parliamentary Labour party, and its equivalent in the other parties, a selection of Members to serve on Select Committees should be made by Back-Benchers, not by party managers. Alternatively, and as I would prefer, there could be a new Committee of Selection exclusively drawn up of those who are not in the Executive and not on the Opposition Front Bench, who would then select Members to serve on Select Committees and recommend who should be their Chairmen.
I have always been somewhat cussed and difficult. As you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was instrumental, along with some Conservative Members and 246 my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—my hon. Friend would have liked to be in the Chamber but she is detained on other parliamentary business—in putting the late Sir Robert Adley in the Chair of the Transport Select Committee in the last Parliament. Sir Robert was very well qualified. However, we were told whom we should have as Chairman. One baulks at that. I accept that the alternative candidates were extremely good as well. However, I am rather proud that I was instrumental in ensuring that Sir Robert became the Chairman.
After Sir Robert's untimely and tragic death, we had Paul Channon, who we said was parachuted in to be Chairman. Paul Channon was a perfectly charming person and he emerged as an extremely good Chairman of the Committee in the previous Parliament. I am not talking about personalities, but it seems to be wrong that these appointments should be handed down from on high.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Perhaps this is a subject that is best kept to our respective biographies.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is a delicate subject. I shall move on—I get your drift.
We must also protect those on the Front Benches from falling into the temptation of the parliamentary sin of removing Members from Select Committees after a general election because they have not been deemed entirely helpful to the Executive. I hope that that practice will be reconsidered.
All hon. Members who have been members of Select Committees have felt, from time to time, that some witnesses have not been wholly frank. In exceptional cases, some have misled a Committee by not telling the truth. Part of the problem is that some witnesses do not understand the gravity of their attendance before the high court of Parliament. We should consider the automatic administration of the oath, which would emphasise that people have to tell the whole truth and that they are embarking on perjury if they do not. Alternatively, we could remind witnesses of the Sessional Orders that we pass at the beginning of each Parliament, which state:if it shall appear that any person hath been tampering with any Witness, in respect of his evidence to be given to this House, or any Committee thereof, or directly or indirectly hath endeavoured to deter or hinder any person from appearing or giving evidence the same is declared to be a high crime and misdemeanour; and this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offender.The language may be arcane and many centuries old, but the message still needs to be brought home: people should not impede witnesses' attendance at House of Commons Select Committees, and those who do attend must be candid with those Committees. We must find a way to underline that message.
One element of the Scotland Act 1998 is interesting. Although we have not included in that legislation the same parliamentary privileges and powers of contempt that exist in this House, the Act provides that recalcitrant witnesses before Committees of the Scottish Parliament can be prosecuted in the High Court. I prefer the ability of the House of Commons to deal with such matters, but it is interesting that a greater sanction to deal with people who are not candid will be available to the Scottish Parliament than in practice is available here at Westminster. Such a provision would also help people 247 who genuinely want to be candid with Parliament but who are nervous about the response of their employers, or other factors.
The House has a duty to foster and encourage bipartisanship in Select Committees. I think that most hon. Members approach their Committee duties in that spirit, but although we cannot legislate for it, sometimes we need to be reminded of it. There are some good examples of that bipartisan spirit in action. For instance, in the previous Parliament, the investigation into the Pergau dam affair produced a very critical report of the then Conservative Government. That report would not have emerged had not Conservative Members acted in a bipartisan manner and approached the investigation without fear, favour or partiality. All Governments must understand that it is the duty of Members of Parliament to approach Select Committee work in that spirit.
The value of that spirit came home to me in this Parliament. I have a good friend who is a member of the Government, although I stress that he is not a member of the foreign affairs team and I shall not embarrass him by naming his constituency. However, he said something interesting to me in connection with the investigation of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs into the so-called Sandline affair. His exact words were, "Mackinlay, I can't understand why you are asking all these questions or why you are pursuing this matter. You are a member of the premier parliamentary Committee: why don't you just enjoy it?" [Laughter.] He was not being malicious in any way, he was simply incredulous.
That remark will certainly appear in my memoirs. It shows how high is the mountain that we must climb to change the attitudes of members of the Executive and to persuade them that we have a duty to perform, and demonstrates that our membership of Committees is not exclusively a matter of going on trips abroad—the clear implication of my friend's remark. Government must accept scrutiny.
Other hon. Members who wish to speak on this subject will no doubt deal with ways in which Select Committees' role could be developed in terms of the legislative process, how Committees can better tackle Parliament's ancient duty of providing supply to the Crown, and how they might exert some influence on the details of Government. That was always our particular function, but as the functions of Government and the size of departmental budgets have grown so massive, to a great extent it has been lost.
An exception is the Public Accounts Committee. Its present Chairman is the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) and his predecessor was my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). That Committee, which conducts its scrutiny retrospectively, has performed an enduringly helpful role in Parliament, and it has contained some other highly distinguished members. It has long been accepted by the Executive, but we must borrow from its experiences and style of resources.
During the Foreign Affairs Committee investigation into the Sandline affair, it became clear to me that we needed someone comparable to the Comptroller and Auditor General—an officer empowered by Parliament to examine the details on behalf of the Committee and to 248 oblige people to furnish documents and give evidence. The considered report of such an officer would have made our hearings more relevant and focused and would have advanced the process of our examination.
I therefore believe that Select Committees dealing with difficult matters that consume much time should be able to appoint someone with the authority of Parliament to do the initial spade work on their behalf. That option should be available to all Select Committees. For example, although I have not served on it, I am sure that a Committee investigating the history of the BSE problem would justify the use of such an officer.
I welcome the use by some Committees of confirmatory hearings, which are basically informal and are not covered by Standing Orders. For example, the Select Committee on the Treasury spoke to the people involved with monetary policy, and the Select Committee on Education and Employment has also held comparable hearings. I should like the Foreign Affairs Committee to have the power at least to give confirmatory hearings to ambassadors. Of course, the Committee could not deal with the huge volume of appointments and would not want to, but the right to examine new ambassadors would be a welcome additional power.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
The Foreign Affairs Committee already has that right. There is nothing to prevent it from calling an ambassador to appear before it so that it can ask questions to determine his competence or otherwise.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I should like such a process to be relatively automatic, especially when the ambassador in question is the son-in-law of a Prime Minister. I was not a Member of the House at the time, but that was a glaring instance of an appointment that should have been scrutinised. I raise that example as a matter of history, as I am sure that it could not happen today. Even so, I believe that we should pursue the matter of confirmatory hearings.
Another subject with which the House must deal is the question of treaties, most of which are signed by royal prerogative and are not ratified by Parliament. I want that to change, and believe that it would be suitable for a Select Committee to examine treaties and make recommendations to Parliament.
The final point that I want to bounce off hon. Members is small but needs to be considered. When there has been an important public sitting of a Select Committee, I am not allowed to show anyone the verbatim report that is produced several days later. That is really frustrating, and inevitably the rule has been broken. I have no strong views about whether such a report should be produced by Gurney's or by Hansard—
§ Mr. Mackinlay
Or on the internet: as I say, I have no strong views on that, but, in a modern Parliament, we need to have the verbatim report the day after the sitting of a Committee. It should be a facility equivalent to that of the daily Hansard report, which in any event is a draft and therefore open to correction. We need that facility fairly immediately.
249 I hope that my remarks will be taken on board by my hon. Friend the Minister and by members of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. I hope that there will be other contributions to this debate both this morning and throughout the Session.
§ Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his insightful, incisive and dignified speech on a matter that is of considerable importance to the entire House.
On these occasions, it is also a convention to congratulate the hon. Member who has obtained the debate on doing so and, today, that is more than a mere convention because the timeliness of this debate is remarkable. The effectiveness of the way in which the House has carried out its duty of scrutiny has been reduced and not always for reasons that are in the Government's control. Sometimes, it has been reduced for extrinsic reasons, because powers have gone from the House to the European Union or other bodies and we understand that. However, it has also happened for intrinsic reasons.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the sheer volume of legislation, which makes it impossible for us to hear every detail of every Bill on the Floor of the House and forces legislation into Committee where, almost by definition, it is dealt with less effectively than it might be in the House.
There are other paradoxical ways in which scrutiny has been undermined. For example, the televising of the House has had a peculiar effect. In one respect, it has opened up the House for everyone to see. In another, it has introduced a soundbite culture, which has undermined the tradition of reasoned debate on which the House has prided itself for centuries and has thus undermined our ability to scrutinise.
There are other areas. I would not expect the Minister to agree, but pre-emptive referendums take away some of the bite of the argument once they have been carried out. There are also matters that might be the subject of political differences, so I will not stress them when dealing with this quintessentially House subject. However, the size of the Government's majority and the much-argued-about reluctance of some Ministers to come before the House have also undermined that scrutiny.
There are many reasons why this debate is timely but it is not so in only one respect, which is that it is on a Wednesday morning when a number of Chairmen of Select Committees, who are probably the people who would be most interested in the debate, are chairing meetings. I know of at least three Chairmen who would otherwise have been here to debate the issue.
The hon. Member for Thurrock referred kindly and accurately to the St. John-Stevas reforms of the early 1980s. On reflection, even the originators of those reforms and Lord Fawsley himself would accept that they achieved only half what they set out to do and, in some respects, the situation is even worse than that.
The nature of our scrutiny can be divided into two groups: policy and expenditure. The scrutiny of policy is handicapped for a number of reasons and, there, the reformers achieved about half of what they set out to do, for reasons that I shall outline. Given that the provision of supply was the origin of all the powers of the House and its primary function in the first instance, it is shameful 250 how we deal with our estimates procedures and exercise our powers over expenditure across Government as a whole, and within Ministries, as a major outcome of policy priorities.
The hon. Gentleman outlined the primary causes of those weaknesses, but I will resummarise them slightly differently, if he will forgive me. First, as he said, is the question of access to information. Of course, Select Committees have the right to summon people and papers and we all do so, but for most Committees—the Public Accounts Committee is a sterling exception—the acquisition of information is to some extent a matter of luck. It is a matter of leak, newspaper report, an indiscreet comment or something that a Minister lets slip; it is not a scientific process and it is not designed to sweep up all the information necessary to the House. The hon. Gentleman made a good point on that subject and I will return to it.
Secondly, on the resources to make use of that information, which is the one area on which I differ with the hon. Gentleman, given that this is the mother of Parliaments it is extraordinary that the resourcing of our Select Committees and the research support that they receive is just about the worst in the world, compared with comparable Houses elsewhere.
Parliamentary time is the third item, and I think that all Select Committee Chairmen are unanimous in saying that we do not give enough parliamentary time to Select Committees. Time on the Floor of the House is fundamental to the exercising of Select Committee powers. They do not have executive powers of their own. Their powers are those of information, exposure and argument and the best place to air those is still, I am glad to say, on the Floor of the House.
The final question is that of parliamentary rights. Select Committees have few rights and I shall propose a small right which will magnify their effectiveness.
On access to information, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's call for a parliamentary investigations officer of some sort—as he said, the equivalent of the Comptroller and Auditor General, who does a wonderful job for my Public Accounts Committee and for Parliament; or something between him and the ombudsman. It should be someone who has the right of access to all information and it is a worthwhile proposal, which I commend to the Government.
The Government have done some good as regards access to information for Select Committees. For example, for the PAC, they removed the idea of "Not for National Audit Office Eyes"—the Whitehall classification. That was a sensible and effective way to improve our scrutiny, and our suggestion would be a natural development from that.
I would go one step further. We have accounting officers in every Government Department who can be held accountable for the money that the Department spends. They appear before the Public Accounts Committee and the other Select Committees and they are held accountable for all the money spent, its proper use and so forth. There ought also to be an information officer in each Department, with the responsibility of drawing to the attention of a Select Committee information that he or she thinks appropriate. If, at some stage, information was not available—be it on Sandline or some other matter— 251 the Committee could ask that officer why it was not told and whether it was a matter of policy not to do so. That would put the onus of responsibility on the civil service.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the change of culture, but the culture of Whitehall is not that of disclosure. As the hon. Gentleman will remember well, when I was Minister with responsibility for Europe I spent a vast quantity of my time trying to ensure that all the other Departments provided the Select Committee on European Legislation with the right documents on time. It is extraordinary that a Minister should have to drive such a process; we could transform in one move the way in which Whitehall approaches that matter.
On resources, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman because there is indeed an argument for radically increasing the resources available to Select Committees. In the scrutiny process, they are up against enormous resources commanded by others. To take an example with which I was familiar, the European Legislation Committee had a few people to support it, but when I was a Minister, my Department, which dealt with the European Union, was probably twice its size. The disparity is clear and should be put right as that would add to the effectiveness and quality of scrutiny and to the quality of recommendations. That is a good thing for a self-confident Government because it will improve the quality of legislation.
In addition to increased resources for individual Committees, there should be a central resource—an extension of the policy and research divisions of our Library, which should be largely staffed by ex-civil servants, seconded civil servants and people who understand Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office issues and so forth and can move around the subjects. A Select Committee that faced a large, sudden demand on its time—be it the Foreign Affairs or the Social Services Committee—could then call down a resource. In particular, the central resource should have a strong financial function, because the involvement of Select Committees in the estimates procedure and the approval of supply is the weakest component of their, and the House's, activity.
The third problem is parliamentary time. A Select Committee that cannot command time on the Floor cannot command the attention of the public, unless it is dealing with something like Sandline and Sierra Leone. Hard cases make bad law; Sandline is not the example that we should be considering. It is the normal operation of Select Committees that should command newspaper interest, not only the exotic and the occasionally scandalous. Such a change would have a major effect. There has already been movement towards it by the allocation of some morning debates by the Liaison Committee, whose Chairman is here, for the debating of Select Committees reports.
A small change would dramatically enhance the effectiveness of Select Committee reports. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays of each parliamentary week, there is a ten-minute rule slot, which, when contested, takes about 35 minutes out of the parliamentary day. It is effective for highlighting the interests of Back Benchers. Why cannot we have about the same time, half an hour, on Monday for a Select Committee to present its report? We could perhaps have 10 minutes for the Chairman, five minutes for two other Members—perhaps also with provision for a minority 252 report—and 10 minutes for the Minister to reply. That would be in prime time at the beginning of the week when attention could be drawn to issues of concern to Select Committees and to the Government's response to them. It is a tiny fraction of parliamentary time, but it would change the culture of Select Committees to producing thoughtful, interesting, debatable, perhaps controversial, reports so that attention did not focus only on scandals and breakdowns of Government.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
My right hon. Friend knows that I sit on the Modernisation Select Committee, to which he referred. He also knows that it is considering an alternative or Main Committee, additional to our main Chamber; it would certainly never take over from the Chamber. Does he believe that that forum might allow many more excellent Select Committee reports to be considered? Does he support the proposal?
§ Mr. Davis
I thank my hon. Friend. No, I do not, for this straightforward reason. I know of the Australian experience; the four-page note from the clerk of the Australian Parliament points out that the Main Committee may have drawn attention away from the Floor of the House. Everything we do to promote the House's effective scrutiny of the Executive should focus on reinforcing the role of the Floor. That is how to make scrutiny most powerful—not using a Main Committee, which will only be looked at from time to time by lazy journalists.
§ Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)
I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave that answer. Does he agree that of all the proposals before us, that of relegating business from this Chamber to a Main Committee is the most dangerous and insidious?
§ Mr. Davis
I agree, but my right hon. and hon. Friends tempt me off my main line of argument.
My last substantive point concerns the parliamentary rights of Select Committees. There is a serious problem with how Select Committees deal with the estimates procedure in particular. Our Standing Orders require that amendments to the estimates can only reduce them; they cannot vary them in any other way. That is understandable for the management of Government business and of the economy. Treasury Ministers must have the last word on the Government's aggregate spending, or government becomes meaningless in this day and age. However, we do not have to break that barrier to change the Standing Orders materially for the better.
After Select Committees have taken evidence on a Department's estimate, it is perfectly possible to allow them to recommend in an amendment for debate on the Floor that there should be virement, or movement between one departmental sub-heading and another. To pick an example completely outside my area of policy skill, in international development we might argue that we want to spend less on crisis management and more on crisis prevention, or less on Africa and more on Asia. Such large arguments about priority are the language of politics and it should be possible to conduct them on the Floor. 253 That would be possible and effective only if the Government had to answer the outcome of a Select Committee's evidence-taking on the Floor.
Of course, a Government with a majority will always be able to vote down such amendments, but Ministers would have to defend the explicit financial priorities of their Departments on the Floor, which is the focus of our scrutiny. This tiny change in Standing Orders would fundamentally change not only the relationship between Parliament and Government but that between Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall. From my own experience, I know that few non-Cabinet Ministers—that means those who have the time to think about things—get anywhere near the numbers involved in running their Departments or decisions on spending priorities.
The change would mean that when a Minister of State appears before a Select Committee to explain why his Department is spending so much money on, say, welfare to work and less on something else, it would suddenly be in the interest of the permanent secretary to ensure that the Minister is incredibly well briefed. The permanent secretary would not want what is really the power of the civil service debated across the Floor. It would be a change not only in the House's ability to scrutinise what the Government do but in the ability of Government to deliver on their policy promises, manifesto commitments and beliefs, which is why they are there in the first place.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
My right hon. Friend has not remarked, as I felt that he would, on whether Select Committees should be given the duty each year of considering the estimates of their Department. It would be not a voluntary but a specific duty to consider them before they are considered and passed by the House.
§ Mr. Davis
I would turn that round and make it a requirement that each estimate be approved by a Select Committee. The Committee could then decide for itself how much time to spend on the matter. I must press on.
I have one last comment for the Minister. It is difficult for Executives to give power away to Parliament so that it can scrutinise them and make their lives more difficult. But if I may say so, in the same spirit as the hon. Member for Thurrock, some of the greatest things that have happened in this Parliament happened when a Government made such a decision—for example, the small jewel of the Select Committee system today. If I may say so—I say this entirely selfishly—there is the large jewel of the Public Accounts Committee, whose Chairman is a member of the Opposition. That was the result of a decision by Gladstone which, at the time, must have been a difficult decision to make. However, it was a decision of great wisdom, which has lasted one and a half centuries. I see my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) nodding. Such a decision would be difficult for the Executive to make, but it would go down in history as a mark of the confidence of such an Executive and its respect for Parliament.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Right hon. and hon. Members may anticipate that, in line with practice, Front-Bench speeches should begin at about 10 minutes past 12, and I hope that, in order that everyone who wishes to speak in the debate may be included, hon. Members will keep an eye on that fact.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) is right. The decision to which he referred did so much to make 19th century and 20th century political life what we have come to expect. It was taken by a person who had great authority and power, and who realised the limitations of that. Had we seen rather more of that in this century, we might have been better placed. It was a wonderful decision.
I want briefly to refer to the point made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden about expenditure. That is important. In the annual debates on the Public Accounts Committee—the right hon. Gentleman will introduce this year's debate tomorrow—I used to reproach all the Select Committees. It was my annual regret that they did not consider the amount that was being spent by Government in their areas. I would say, "For heaven's sake, just say, 'I am happy with the way that the Government are spending money in our area. Carry on.'" When the matter is put in that way, it shows how inadequate the examination really is.
We are moving towards resource accounting and that gives us the opportunity to consider all this afresh. It will show just how much has been spent in a particular area on which a Select Committee may have commented or reported, and how much has been spent in another area. The Select Committees may almost be forced to say whether that expenditure is right or wrong. I look forward to seeing that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) introduced today's debate splendidly. He rightly mentioned the need for a parallel career structure. Not so long ago, an important Select Committee Chairman gave up his post for a lowly position on the Front Bench. That is the kind of priority that the House has come to accept, but it need not always do so.
I understand the advantages of office as a way in which to find out how the whole thing works. But when one thinks of the power, opportunities, interest and tasks ahead, one realises that Select Committee Chairmen have a wonderful opportunity. Given the way in which Parliament has evolved during the past 10 or 20 years, there is no doubt that their role has grown in importance. This Parliament has probably seen the most important ever growth in the role of the Select Committee Chairman. I look forward to seeing that trend continue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock rightly spent time on the suggestion of selection by Back Benchers; but the Select Committees themselves can take action. When the Liaison Committee was set up, there was an attempt to shoe-horn in a favourite of the then Prime Minister. As a senior member of the Liaison Committee, I immediately proposed Terence Higgins. Despite one or two people having some doubts in view of the patronage of a Prime Minister, he was voted in.
We have seen other things too. Robert Adley was a great loss; it was he who said that railway privatisation was a poll tax on wheels. It is a great pity that he has not been here during the past four or five years. Of course, we have here the hon. Member for Macclesfield, for whom we all have enormous admiration and affection. He was the object of a peculiar rule, instituted as the Macclesfield rule, which said that if one has been a 255 Select Committee Chairman for two Parliaments, one cannot stand again. It was such nonsense to create that absurd rule just to dispose of the hon. Gentleman, but, of course, he has rebounded, to the pleasure and joy of us all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock was right—bipartisanship is crucial. Select Committees consist of people who come in opposed to each other; they have to learn to take into account the facts. In order for the facts to overcome their prejudice, they must have respect not only for those facts, but for each other. That is of enormous importance. A good Chairman will ensure that such a relationship exists between Committee members.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) has done splendidly in the Select Committee on the Treasury. He took his Select Committee away for a weekend to discuss the future. Such bonding situations, where one has respect for the facts, are important. I know, because I was Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee nearly 20 years ago, and one of our tasks was to discover how to deal with monetarism in a way that was critical of it and respected the facts. We had confidence in each other and knew that the facts would determine our results, even if the Government of the day were not happy about that. That is of enormous importance and I want to see it continue.
With regard to staffing, my feeling is that one should have the special adviser that one wants. When I was a Select Committee Chairman, I said that anyone who wanted a special adviser should say whom he or she wanted and, as long as another name could be obtained if necessary, he or she could have any adviser whom he or she wanted. No one has ever refused to be a special adviser, so one can have the talent that one wants.
However, I agree that we need something more. We need someone in-house. We do not need long appointments, but appointments of three to five years, so that an area of expertise is developed. I do not fancy someone coming in from outside and being in a controlling position, but a three-to-five-year appointment in certain areas would allow such people to look out for things of which the Committee may not even have thought. That may be one way in which to proceed.
The Treasury and Civil Service Committee did splendidly with regard to confirmatory hearings. The example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock was not quite as good as I would have wished, because party politics would come into it; it would be hard to avoid that. But it should be a principle that one cannot appoint someone to public office without having the responsibility—not to consider their private life, because that does not concern us—to ensure that that person is competent, equipped and has the background that fits him for that office.
Finally, I come to the point that I make repeatedly. The hallmark of my present position as Chairman of the Liaison Committee is to get the evidence out quickly. That is enormously important. Uncorrected evidence should be produced the following morning. It is available to members, but not to the House. We have uncorrected evidence in Hansard; it simply goes through. But those who concern themselves with these matters—perhaps over-clever people, in the words of a former Chairman 256 of a Select Committee—think that there are questions of privilege. They feel that somebody might bring an action against the Liaison Committee Chairman. I have told them that I am prepared to accept such a challenge, were anyone foolish enough to make it. We are still working on that.
My task now is to get such evidence on the internet. Some of us have the internet and it is almost like having one's own library in one's room. One can see not only the reports but, even more importantly, the evidence. When the evidence comes three or four weeks later, no one bothers with it. If one had the evidence from the Governor of the Bank of England, the Foreign Secretary or whoever the following day, it would become part of the activity of the House. It would become part of questions for the Prime Minister and for others. The evidence as it is announced could be part of the kind of half-hour discussion that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden proposed. That is the sort of thing I want to see and I look forward to seeing it in due course.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
I shall approach the matter from the other end of the experience scale from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I first entered the House in 1997. Since then, Select Committees have taken up a great deal of my time. I have been a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs and, more recently, I have been the Chairman of the Select Committee on Information, one of the domestic Committees. As a new Member, in common with many of my colleagues, I have found that the Select Committees are one of the great joys of the House. They are far better than most of us anticipated. They have an extraordinarily significant role in terms of holding the Executive to account. They are particularly relevant in a Parliament such as this where the Government have a large majority. That is a simple fact of life that I am not willing to dispute, and in that context, the role of the Select Committees takes on even greater stature than in a more marginal Parliament.
My experience on a departmental Committee has shown that there is an intellectual and factual rigor. There are debates around the facts rather than around partisan positions. That occurs far more often in Select Committees than in the Chamber. The experience of grilling a Minister for two hours far exceeds anything that happens in the Chamber during Question Time, which is really a matter of political points scoring.
One of the great ironies is that the bipartisan approach—perhaps in my position I should say tripartisan approach—that one takes in a Select Committee is made easier by the fact that it is not in the public eye or before the cameras. The public eye tends to encourage a political points-scoring atmosphere. By being out of the way, one is able to be more co-operative and tripartisan. The public do not see us behaving in that way because they only get to see us in the Chamber. I often have to tell constituents that we do constructive work in many other areas that is just not seen.
I have great sympathy with the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) about the way in which members and Chairmen of Select Committees are chosen. At my first meeting of the Information 257 Committee, I was amused to receive a message saying, "Do not allow yourself to be elected Chairman." There were still wranglings and negotiations about the allocation of the chairmanship and who should get what. In the end, a Government Whip manfully held the position of Chairman until we sorted things out, particularly between Opposition parties. I was then elected to the Chair and I hope that it has worked out appropriately. I believe that it was for the best. That incident opened up to me the Machiavellian world of negotiations that take place behind the scenes about positions, places and Chairs.
Hon. Members have talked about Select Committee places being handed out as some sort of reward or cherry-picking exercise. I was interested to see that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is regarded as being in the premier league. In that context, the Home Affairs Committee must be somewhere in the Vauxhall Conference league. At my first meeting of the Home Affairs Committee, I remember the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) saying, quite properly, "As this is the Home Affairs Committee, I hope that we will not be gallivanting around the world because we can find out what we need to find out here." My subsequent experience has shown that he was correct. I have had some interesting trips to Newcastle and Middlesbrough to look at young offenders, but I have not set foot outside the shores of this country on behalf of that Committee.
The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne talked about the publication of information. I can testify to his assiduousness in that, having seen him advancing his point of view in the all-party internet group. I suspect that anoraks' corner, which meets in certain quarters of the Palace to discuss arcane matters of internet usage, is not his natural territory. From the Information Committee's point of view, I can see no technical bar to the publication of the information if it can be put on in the correct format. If Hansard, which is a tremendous resource, can be produced the next day, there is no reason why Select Committee testimony could not be put out in a similar way. I sympathise with the right hon. Gentleman's comment about the fact that after three or four weeks, the testimony may no longer be relevant. It is nonsensical for the newspapers and television to be able to broadcast and print the information immediately while we have no authorised version of the uncorrected testimony. It diminishes the impact of those sessions and devalues them tremendously.
In terms of the evolution of Committees, I would be keen to look at how the Select Committees and Standing Committees could be brought together. It is ironic that members of Select Committees often cannot sit on Standing Committees because of a conflict of time when they are the people who have developed expertise. As a new Member, I learned more about home affairs, which is relevant to my work, than ever before during my time on that Committee and it would have been useful to be able to apply that knowledge. Having tried to sit on a Standing Committee and a Select Committee at the same time, I found that the two were incompatible.
In other countries, there are much closer links between Select Committees and Standing Committees, and they are able to hold special committees where Select Committee members do the evidence taking in respect of a particular Bill. I should like to see us evolve far more in that direction and perhaps look at some other models so that the expertise of Select Committee members is applied 258 directly to Government legislation. It may be that the bipartisan atmosphere could also be applied to legislation. That is not always the case in a Standing Committee where Government Back Benchers are encouraged to keep quiet rather than to participate, whoever is in government. That would not happen in a Select Committee. The Government Back Benchers on a Select Committee would get a much better crack at the legislation than they do under the current Standing Committee procedures.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock on initiating the debate and I look forward to hearing the other contributions.
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). He has learnt a great deal in a short time, and we look forward to hearing his contributions as he grows in experience and maturity—I hope that he does not mind me saying that. By contrast, I have been here for almost 20 years, 18 of which I spent on the Front Bench. I was a member of the shadow Cabinet from 1985, I was a member of the national executive committee of the Labour party and, as Chief Whip, I was one of the four officers of the parliamentary Labour party. I have been at the centre of my party' s affairs for a substantial time.
I was one of those Machiavellian creatures who fixed all the appointments. As I came towards the end of my career, I saw the light and began to think that perhaps the Whips should not be involved in those appointments. Fortunately, I did not see the light sufficiently quickly to do anything about it. However, it is right to say that it would be better if the Whips were not involved. I can say that now that I have no responsibility. It would be very much more difficult to take that view as Chief Whip. That point is worth listening to and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has raised this subject.
I had my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock with me in the Whips Office for only one year. He was absolutely outstanding. That man is a Chief Whip's nightmare and the only way to deal with him is to put him in the Whips Office. He was fine when he was with me, but he decided that he wanted to leave.
§ Mr. Foster
Yes. All the best people in this place are a Chief Whip's nightmare. They are the really valuable people, not those on the Front Bench. We can get Front Benchers ten a penny—I hope that they do not mind me saying so. In fact, a tenth of a penny is all that some of them are worth. The awkward squad are the really valuable people in this place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) gave me untold trouble. At one time, he was intending to get himself thrown out of the Chamber every Tuesday and Thursday at Prime Minister's Question Time. I had him in my office every Tuesday and Thursday and, fortunately, I managed to dissuade him from using that nuclear weapon that he was intending to let off. When I failed to persuade him on one occasion, I had to send him to then leader of the Labour party, Neil Kinnock, who is now a European Commissioner, and he succeeded in persuading him.
259 My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow felt passionately that what was going on was wrong and that he was not able to draw attention to the truth. He believed that there was no parliamentary device that allowed him to do so. Of course, being my hon. Friend, he had notified the press that he was to be thrown out of the Chamber, so the press were anticipating that. He was going to hold a press conference and reveal all. However, it never quite happened. It was all to do with the Falklands war, of course, and the sinking of the Belgrano.
I remember on one occasion saying to my hon. Friend, "I want you in the Chamber, Tam." Some very important debate was going on. I said, "You of all people would not miss the sinking of your Belgrano." I think that it was the day when we forced a motion of no confidence and when Mrs. Thatcher resigned. My hon. Friend wanted to be away somewhere. I said, "No, Tam, everyone must be here on this day and you must be there to sink your Belgrano." Of course, we did not sink her. She—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman because the House is enjoying his remarks, but I have not yet identified the thread that leads to Select Committee reform.
§ Mr. Foster
If there was not a thread, I will try to invent one now. The thread is that this place is supremely important. It is more important than Governments. We have all fought in this place to establish our freedoms and to bring Governments under control. No Government likes to be brought under control. The only way in which we can do so is to have the courage and confidence to tell the truth to one another. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues on the Labour Benches think that one crawls one's way into office. The best people kick their way into office. They then become very substantial figures in their own right.
I remember one thing that I said in my first speech after I left the Government, after only 36 hours. It was a period of great emotion for me. I said that this place must never be the Prime Minister's poodle. Unfortunately, it has become so. The only people who can reclaim it are my colleagues on the Labour Back Benches. They ought to have the courage to take on the Government, to tell the truth, and to say to Ministers, "You are wrong. All right, I may not get a job, but so what? There is an alternative career as a Back Bencher or a Chairman of a Select Committee. You are wrong and we are going to bring you to account." They should have the courage to say that whether it is to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister or whoever within the Government.
The Prime Minister, we recall, is the primus inter pares. He is not a president. In other words, I am as good as the Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is as good as the Prime Minister. Our colleagues on the Opposition Benches are as good as the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is the primus inter pares and Parliament operates only when we make that work. Sadly, we ourselves have presided over the demise of Parliament. We ought not to blame the press or the Government. We ought to blame ourselves and we ought to say from this moment forward, "Let us reclaim the territory that we have lost and bring Governments to account because that is our constitutional right and duty. We cannot represent the people by any other means."
§ 12.4 pm
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I am pleased to follow the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). I shall be brief because I know that the Front-Bench spokesmen want to wind up in about four or five minutes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on initiating this debate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) has said, it comes at an appropriate time because the Modernisation Committee is considering these matters and how Parliament can best use its time, and the Procedure Committee, which I chair, is similarly engaged in considering how the House, through its procedures, can most effectively operate.
I am sorry that in 1992, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland did not hold the views that he holds today. Perhaps if he had, I would have remained the Chairman of the Health Select Committee—a job that I very much enjoyed and which I hope that I did effectively on behalf of the House. As the right hon. Gentleman has said, the Select Committees do not operate on behalf of the Labour party, new or old, the Conservative and Unionist party or the Liberal Democrat party. They operate on behalf of the House of Commons. I know that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) shares my view that the Select Committee system is the only effective way in which the House of Commons can hold the Government of the day to account not only in respect of spending money, but in respect of policy. Therefore, the reform of the system to give the Select Committees more power and authority is absolutely right.
Similarly, it is right, proper and important that the Select Committees should have the resources in terms of staff and specialist advice to enable them to do their job properly. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, the work of the Government in relation to the European Union is massive. So it is important that the Select Committees should have the staff, expertise and technical support to enable them to do on behalf of the House what is necessary to hold the Executive to account.
The changes that were made by Norman St. John Stevas, now Lord St. John of Fawsley, in 1979–80 were absolutely right. While there was reservation in the House at the time about those reforms, they have proved extremely important for the House and have enabled Back-Bench Members of Parliament to hold whichever Government are in power to account in a more effective way.
I share the views of the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland and of the hon. Member for Thurrock. The hon. Member for Thurrock has proved himself to be a thoroughly effective, efficient, successful and outstanding Back-Bench Member of Parliament. He has done the job that those who elected him as Member of Parliament for Thurrock intended him to do. He is held in high regard, although he has not had what I would call a lasting Front-Bench appointment. There needs to be in this place an alternative career. Back Benchers can have those alternative careers. They do not have to become Ministers to be effective Members of Parliament. They can become effective Members of the House by becoming specialists, and members and Chairmen of Select Committees. Perhaps in future those roles will be rewarded in a more effective and meaningful way than they are today. 261 They are very important. Parliament could not operate without effective Back-Bench Members of Parliament. If it did, we would have a dictatorship.
The hon. Member for Thurrock has done a great service to the House by initiating the debate today. I wish him success and hope that he and I can continue to play, from our different positions in the House, an effective role on behalf of the House of Commons in holding the Government of the day, whether of my party or his, to account. Without our doing that, Parliament would be a mockery.
§ 12.9 pm
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
We have had a most outstanding debate in the past hour and nine minutes. I shall do my best not to lower the tone. It is good to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). For more than a quarter of a century, we were Back Benchers. I think that I can say without sounding conceited or boastful that neither of us was ever afraid to try to hold the Government to account. I always took the line that I was never prepared to accept the constraints of office in order to achieve office, and it is a pity that more hon. Members do not take that line.
We have heard some outstanding speeches this morning, and we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is an exemplary Back-Bench Member, for introducing the debate in the way that he did. He was both provocative and thoughtful in the best tradition of parliamentary democracy. We also heard an unforgettable speech from the former Mr. Fix-it, the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). As I listened to him, I could not help but think that there is more joy in the House of Commons over one Whip that repenteth—it really was a tour de force. In that brief speech, he encapsulated what the debate is about and what the House should be about.
When the Opposition initiated a debate on 7 July, in the midst of the Sierra Leone episode, we did not debate that matter specifically, but discussed the position and rights of Select Committees, and the hon. Member for Thurrock made a distinguished speech. When I wound up that debate, I quoted, to the hilarity of some Labour Members, Colonel Dunning's famous motion of 1780, which said that the power of the Crown had increased, was increasing and should be diminished. Today, the power of the Executive has increased, is increasing and needs to be diminished, especially in a Parliament where the Government have a steamroller majority and can get their way, regardless of the sense of the argument, or the equity or justice of the cause.
In such a Parliament, it is crucial that the Prime Minister and—I hope, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, whom we welcome today—will respond to the debate in like spirit. It is essential that the Prime Minister tries to emulate Gladstone, who set up the Public Accounts Committee, two of whose distinguished Chairmen we have heard from today. Gladstone was a man of immense power, great prestige and stature, who knew that those qualities could only be added to, and not detracted from, by allowing the Chamber to have a proper say in calling Government to account. I hope that it was in that spirit—indeed, I believe that it was so—that the departmental Select Committees were set up almost 20 years ago. We must all recognise that Ministers are answerable to Parliament and that Parliament is not answerable to Ministers.
262 We must recognise that more of our influence and authority has inevitably passed, in this television age, to those smaller Rooms where Select Committees meet, where arguments can be examined on their merits—as many hon. Members have pointed out—and the narrow partisanship that is sometimes so evident in the Chamber can be put to one side. Select Committees have an especially crucial role to play for the House. They are not the creature of Government, but are answerable to this House; they are appointed by this House. How glad I was to hear repentance from the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who said that the manner of appointment of Select Committees was perhaps not correct. How right it is that we should try to ensure that Select Committee chairmanships are not merely regarded as a reward for someone who has missed out on being a Minister, or has been sacked from a ministerial post. It is important that people are selected for their merits.
The hon. Member for Thurrock rightly made the point—which was echoed by other right hon. and hon. Members—that there should be an alternative career ladder in this place. No greater honour can befall any man or woman of this country than to be elected to this House, and it grieves me that Parliament is so sniped at and denigrated by the fourth estate, which sometimes seems hellbent on destroying the other three. When a man or woman is elected to this House with aspirations to office, those aspirations are more properly fixed on the chairmanship of a Select Committee and on serving the House than on anything else. I do not advocate the separation of powers that exists in the United States and other countries, but Congress provides for the aspiring American public servant an opportunity that is not as readily appreciated in this country as it should be.
I totally agree with those who have argued—as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) in a notable speech—for extra resources for Select Committees. It is nonsense that the Chairman of a Select Committee who is going to an important event should have to wait in a taxi queue, but it is far greater nonsense that the resources to match the resources of Ministries are not available, in some degree, to the Chairmen and members of Select Committees. There should be greater devotion of resources to those Committees.
It is also right that we should debate the findings of Select Committees on the Floor of the House. I was so glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and others talked about the Chamber in the way that they did. It is a great pity that people will not have the chance to read about this debate in the press tomorrow. The way in which Parliament is being sidelined, not only by the Government, but by the media, is scandalous. People's faith in this place would be reinforced somewhat if they had the opportunity to know about the quality and content of debates such as this one.
I believe that, unless we can put this place back as the forum and cockpit of the nation, we shall fail in our duty as parliamentarians. Although I accept that it is entirely right and proper that the Modernisation Committee should consider such innovative ideas as the Main Committee, I remain unconvinced about that issue. However, whether or not that Committee comes into existence, it cannot, must not and should never replace the Chamber. 263 Life would be brought back to the Chamber if we had more debates about the findings of our Select Committee colleagues.
In that context, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made the extremely good suggestion that, perhaps on a Monday, a half hour or an hour should be set aside for such debates. There is no reason why that should not be done. The parliamentary managers should be able to find that time, and if that means that we sit until 11 o'clock on Monday evenings—so what? Let us have a regular slot when Select Committee findings can be presented to the House, because those Committees and their Chairmen are answerable to the House, and Ministers are then answerable, before the House, to the Select Committees.
I do not make these points to the Parliamentary Secretary in a partisan spirit; I should make precisely the same points from the Government Back Benches, as many hon. Members will be aware. We need a system that more properly and adequately holds Ministers to account. Parliament has two prime functions: one is to scrutinise legislation minutely and properly, but the other—which is more important, because it goes beyond legislation—is to make Ministers properly answerable to Parliament. They should be able to defend their every action and, of course, their estimates.
I end on that point, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Thurrock and by others, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden: Select Committees should have a greater say in the expenditure of the public's money. It is not the Government's money; it is the taxpayer's money, and to say that only those who are in government should have total control over expenditure and priorities is wrong. If we could do something to change matters along the lines that have been suggested, it would be a complete vindication of the excellent service that the hon. Member for Thurrock has performed today by initiating the debate.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
I listened with a great deal of interest, and sometimes amusement, to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) made. He described himself as cussed and difficult, and took the opportunity to "bounce ideas" around the Chamber. He can tell his friend and ministerial colleague whom he did not identify that, although he may not have had the opportunity to enjoy trips abroad with the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he certainly enjoyed himself today. The entire Chamber enjoyed his speech.
Many points were made during the debate and I shall try to answer some of them. I shall reflect on the others, but, as the House knows, the issue concerns the House as well as the Government. I expect those hon. Members with more experience than I, who have powerful voices and positions, to continue this debate elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster. Many themes emerged and I shall discuss three of those before coming to the specific points.
First, strong support was expressed on both sides of the Chamber for the Select Committee system. Everyone believes that it has a strong foundation and no one advocated major change. Hon. Members want to improve 264 the system and many suggestions were made about how to go about that. The system is not static—it has changed and it will continue to change. The mood of the House today reflects a desire to see quicker change. Let me reflect on two or three changes.
Within this Parliament, the Select Committee structure has been changed slightly to mirror the new departmental structures. An Environmental Audit Committee has been set up and, importantly, a new Human Rights Committee will soon be set up to monitor new legislation. The big change, which no one has mentioned in great depth this morning, is the move to encourage and enable Select Committees to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny. Someone said that the Social Security Committee had looked at the pensions splitting on divorce Bill. There will shortly be opportunities for Select Committees to examine, for example, the new food standards agency. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) knows, a Committee will also have opportunities to look at asylum and immigration procedures, and I hope that he will be involved. Inevitably, that pre-legislative scrutiny will lead to changes in Select Committee structure.
Secondly, I was slightly amused at the discussion about the need for bipartisanship. The House is very much into pantomime and yah-boo politics. I thought that I heard an increasing echo of people saying that they wanted a new consensual approach to politics—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] When hon. Members are challenged with that, their voices change, but I had the impression that hon. Members were saying that bipartisanship should be encouraged.
Thirdly and most importantly, hon. Members were conscious of the importance of creative tension between Back Benchers and the Select Committee system, and the Government. We can all benefit from that creative tension. There is nothing to be frightened about. I hope that the call for greater openness expressed in the Chamber this morning will be heard. Greater openness is one of the Government's aims.
A number of specific points have been made and I shall deal with two or three of them. A strong call was made for greater status for Select Committee reports, members and Chairmen. Like many other hon. Members, I listen regularly to the "Today" programme and I have reached the conclusion that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee is in residence there. He is there almost every day because he pursues the Select Committee's line. His status arises from the Select Committee's achievements. We need to back Select Committees and ensure that their status arises from their achievements.
Extra resources for Select Committees were called for. Ultimately, that is a matter for the House of Commons Commission, with which some hon. Members present today are involved, but extra resources have been made available in the past. I understand that resources are available, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said, there is never a difficulty in getting specialist advisers because it is regarded as an honour to work for a Select Committee. However, there may be a case for looking again at the issue of special assistants who advise Select Committees.
I want to spend a few minutes discussing the points made by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), and his predecessor about expenditure. In a sense, my right hon. Friend the Member for 265 Ashton-under-Lyne partly wound up the debate. He stressed that, with imagination, Select Committees could do many things and that in many ways they were not constrained. I hope that Select Committees will take a longer look at expenditure. I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden that much more needs to be done to make the Executive accountable for their expenditure. Resource accounting will help, as will a measurement of output and a focus on input. However, I see no reason why Select Committees should not be able to call Ministers before them and examine the issues that he discussed.
I am conscious that I have very little time in which to respond, so I shall discuss just two other issues. The first is the need to ensure that evidence is available quickly, not just to hon. Members, but to the wider public. There is a case for quicker production of reports and, in extreme cases, evidence can be made available quickly. Furthermore, when Select Committees are recorded and videoed, a tape can be produced immediately. However, the use of new technology should be explored to ensure that evidence is available quickly.
Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock mentioned witnesses giving evidence on oath. We must bear it in mind that appearing before a Select Committee is difficult. Ministers are grilled, but people from the outside are grilled too and we must be careful how we handle those people.
I am conscious that I have made no specific pledges, but I hope that the tone of my remarks is sympathetic. I shall ensure that hon. Members' comments are made available to a wider audience. Change has occurred and will occur, and I hope that we shall establish a system in which the whole House feels that Select Committee views are heard.