That the following amendments be made to Standing Order No. 119 (European Standing Committees):
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Agriculture, Fisheries and Food', and insert 'Environment, Food and Rural Affairs'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Environment, Transport and the Regions', and insert 'Transport, Local Government and the Regions'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Scottish, Welsh', and insert 'Scotland, Wales'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Social Security', and insert 'Work and Pensions'.
In the Table, in the column 'Principal subject matter', leave out 'Education and Employment', and insert 'Education and Skills'.
It may be convenient for the House, especially as so many hon. Members are heading in that direction, if I say that an explanatory memorandum is available in the Vote Office that details the terms and significance of the motion. During last Thursday's debate on programming, the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) suggested that an explanatory memorandum would have been valuable. I am pleased to say that we have been able to respond, and I hope that colleagues who read that testimonial to him will appreciate it. For technical and legal reasons, we have not yet resolved whether we can put it on the Order Paper, but we shall continue to consider that.
I can be brief, because I believe that the motion reflects a broad consensus in many quarters of the House, although I may not carry everyone with me on that. I discussed the motion with the three senior Members appointed by the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament to continue the work of preparing for the Select Committees and, save for one modest change of detail, the motion fully implements the table and schedule that they presented to me. I hope that the motion will achieve consensus and gain the support of the House.
The motion has two main consequences. First, it will reconfigure the departmental Select Committees so that they track the departmental changes in Whitehall. I anticipate no disagreement with that, especially given the modest attendance. Plainly, those who remain fully understand such matters and know perfectly well that there is no point in having departmental Select Committees that reflect the Departments of the previous Parliament rather than those of this. I hope that hon. Members will support that.
481 The motion's second main consequence is several modest but important steps that will give Select Committees more freedom and flexibility over their arrangements in two principal ways. First, Select Committees will have the freedom to appoint Sub-Committees. Until now, we have specified by a decision of the House which departmental Select Committees can form a Sub-Committee. Given the importance and stability of Select Committees, that is now unnecessary and old fashioned. We are leaving it to Select Committees to decide for themselves whether forming a Sub-Committee at a particular time and on a particular issue would be of value. That must be right.
Secondly, we are giving every Select Committee the right to form a Joint Committee with any other Select Committee. Again, hitherto, a specific decision of the House was required to enable a Select Committee to form a Joint Committee. Last year, Liaison Committee reports drew attention to the fact that the evolution of government towards joined-up government had created crosscutting initiatives that were difficult for a Select Committee to track in isolation. They advocated more flexibility in enabling Select Committees to track joined-up government through Joint Committees. The motion gives Select Committees the freedom to form Joint Committees.
§ Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)
My right hon. Friend referred to the Liaison Committee report and said quite rightly that these welcome reforms will have wide support within the House. Will he also reflect on the fact that many hon. Members representing all parties have subscribed to early-day motion 50—and many more will—which calls on the Government to reconsider the Liaison Committee report, particularly those parts of it that deal with the selection of Select Committees? Will he use this opportunity to give the House an undertaking that those matters will be seriously considered and brought back to the House for debate as a matter of urgency?
I am pleased to reassure my hon. Friend that I look at the Order Paper first thing every day and have noted with interest the number of names attached to the early-day motion. I have said to my hon. and learned Friend privately and on the record at business questions that I am willing to look again at some of the issues and some of the recommendations made by the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament and will want to return to that in the autumn, perhaps through the Modernisation Committee and through other channels. However, as I have always stressed, the important and urgent business is to get the Select Committees started and to get them under way. Therefore, I have to do so under the existing process of selection and approval. I hope that my hon. Friend will be patient on further changes until we resume after the summer recess.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I am grateful to the Leader of the House. He has just talked about Joint Committees and greater flexibility. Will he share with the House whether he has in mind a Joint Committee of the Procedure Committee, which I had the honour to chair in the previous Parliament, and the Modernisation Committee, which he will chair in this Parliament and of 482 which I was a member in the previous Parliament, because quite clearly there is a lot of common ground between the two Select Committees?
As I understand the motion, there is nothing to prevent those two Select Committees, should they choose to do so, from examining some work together. I look forward very much to working with the hon. Gentleman on some of these issues. I hope that he will return to the Modernisation Committee in which he played a distinguished and very creative role in the previous Parliament—[Interruption.] I hope that I have not done the hon. Gentleman any damage by that comment. If it is helpful, I will now attack him in order to restore his standing with his party.
I should refer to one other consequence of the motion before I turn to the amendments. The opening passage of the motion addresses in some detail the quorums of Select Committees. The broad effect of that passage is to place the quorums of all Select Committees on a consistent basis, set, broadly speaking, at a quarter of the membership. That will be helpful in a number of Select Committees that have had to struggle with a rather larger quorum, which sometimes has not been realistic in terms of the attendance. In particular, the proposed changes on quorums will be of great value to the Joint Committees, which under the present rules have to produce the full quorum of each of the Select Committees from which they are drawn. The proposed provision creates a new quorum for a Joint Committee in its own right, which will enable it to get on with its work with confidence.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
I am most grateful to the Leader of the House. If Select Committees are as important as Members like to claim, how is it that the Leader of the House can find himself using the phrase that Select Committees struggle to get a quorum? Does he not find it strange that these very important Committees of the House that do very important work, often in far-flung parts of the world, struggle to make a quorum? Would people not be entitled to be slightly suspicious that if we cannot even make a quorum in those Committees, Members themselves do not value their work very much?
I do not think that the problem of making a quorum arises very much for departmental Select Committees, but the House appoints a large number of Select Committees, not every meeting of which is fascinating to every Member and most of which are not held in far-flung places. However, I would not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman's central point, if I can refashion it in a slightly more diplomatic way, that right hon. and hon. Members also have to accept their responsibility for ensuring the status and the good work of Select Committees. In its report last year, the Liaison Committee had some strong words to say about the importance of attendance at Select Committees.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has tabled two amendments, the second of which proposes that every Sub-Committee should contain a member of the Liberal Democrat party or another minority party. I submit that the trend of the motion that I have put before the House is to give Select Committees more discretion, more flexibility and more freedom. It is for them to decide whom to put on a Sub-Committee. As a generality, I hope and expect that they would include a representative of the 483 minority parties in any such Sub-Committee, but it would be wrong in principle and inconsistent with the trend of the motion if we were to make it a blanket prescription by the House.
The hon. Gentleman's other amendment calls for an increase in the membership of Select Committees, typically from 11 to 13. I understand the broad, general case for an increase in the membership of Select Committees, which was argued with vigour by the Hansard Society in its recent report. As I said, I shall want to return to and consult on a number of such issues in the autumn through the work of the Modernisation Committee. In considering further reforms, I shall be happy to examine whether there is a case for larger numbers on Select Committees, as was advocated by the Hansard Society, although we must bear in mind the point made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and ensure that we appoint willing members who will attend the Committees.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
If it is the right hon. Gentleman's intention to reconsider the membership of Select Committees with a view to increasing the numbers, is it proper now to reduce the quorum?
I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point. The quorum is typically set at a quarter of the membership, so if we increased the numbers, the quorum would automatically rise. The hon. Gentleman can set his mind at rest on that difficulty.
If we are to return to some of these matters and to consult on and discuss them, I hope that we can reserve the larger question of the size of Select Committees until then. I am keen to get the Select Committees started in the next two weeks, so I am anxious that there is no unnecessary controversy in the way.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
What time scale does the Leader of the House have for this further review? He may agree with me that reviews have often been promised but seldom delivered.
We have gone at a fairly cracking pace on some of these issues in the past three weeks, especially on how to proceed with Select Committees. If no progress is made, it will not be for want of trying or for lack of intention on our part, but I cannot offer a major change in Select Committees without consultation and without broad consensus.
The size of a Select Committee could be contentious. I do not want to reduce what I hope will be a pleasant House of Commons debate to a partisan affair, but I cannot resist pointing out that a membership of 13 is the figure that most benefits the Liberal Democrats. Under the present distribution of seats in the House, 13 is the first point at which the Liberal Democrats become entitled to two seats, not one. That figure applies until we reach Select Committees with a membership of 21. Some hon. Members may think that if we are going to go for 13, we might as well go for 15 or 17, which would provide added 484 seats for members of other parties, including the large number of Back Benchers in my party who may not otherwise secure a place on a Select Committee.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, and there may be strong pressure for that from Labour Members. The trigger of 13 enables us to include a Liberal Democrat as well as a member of one of the minority parties. Up to that point, it is impossible for both groups to be represented, and that is a real difficulty.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but I think he may share my view that if we are to have a membership of 13 to accommodate that problem, the view in other quarters may be that we should have up to 15 or 17 members to resolve other under-representations. I ask that we reserve this surprisingly contentious question until we can consider Select Committees in the round. In the meantime, I hope that the House will approve the motions that I have submitted to it.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to look at an essay by Sir Edward Fellowes? It appears in a book to which Bernard Crick and others have contributed, entitled "The Commons in Transition", and was written in about 1970. I will not go into the details but Sir Edward said that in 1886—that may seem a long time ago, but the consequences are still with us—the power of the Whips, in other words the handing over of control of Standing Orders to the Executive rather than the Speaker, had left the House of Commons in a parlous condition. I paraphrase Sir Edward, but that is what he said.
Would the right hon. Gentleman consider this possibility? Might it not be highly desirable, in the interest of the independence of Back Benchers, to reach a decision enabling them—in consultation with the Government—to ensure the provision of more of that independence? That would be in line with the general principles of the Liaison Committee, but would apply to all Select Committee matters.
I am even now compiling my reading list for my summer holiday. I shall ensure that Sir Edward's article is included.
Many complex and thoughtful proposals have of course been presented by the Liaison Committee, the Hansard Society and the Norton commission, which was established by the hon. Gentleman's party. We should reflect on many of those proposals, and see whether we can find ways of making incremental improvements to the system. I certainly agree that we should obtain the right balance between the Government's ability to secure the legislation on the basis of which they were elected, and the House's right to scrutinise that and other Government legislation.
I believe that the timetable for Select Committees with which we are pressing ahead demonstrates our good faith in that regard. As I announced earlier today, we intend to confirm nominations on Monday week, which will enable the Committees to meet before the House rises on 20 July. 485 That will be the greatest speed at which any Government have set up Select Committees following the commencement of a new Parliament.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
My intervention will be very brief.
We are delighted by my right hon. Friend's clear indication that he appreciates the importance of Select Committees. He will understand that we also place much reliance on his undertaking to examine some of the other aspects of the Liaison Committee's report, to which the House will wish to return in due course.
I am delighted that I gave way to my hon. Friend. I hope that I shall have her support, as well as that of others, when we return from the recess.
The commitment that we have made in regard to Select Committees reflects the importance we attach to scrutiny. It also reflects my own view that scrutiny of Government does not necessarily constitute an adversarial relationship between Executive and Parliament—certainly not through the Select Committee system.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) mentioned Bernard Crick. Some time ago, Bernard Crick said that parliamentary control of the Executive was not the enemy of effective government, but the condition of effective government. I believe that we have a common interest in ensuring that we arrive at a proper, effective system of scrutiny through Select Committees, and it is in that spirit that I commend the motion. I hope that it will command consensus support.
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
The last words of the Leader of the House were attractive, if I may put it that way. I was happy to heal them, and happy to note the spirit in which I believe they were uttered.
All I can say on behalf of the official Opposition is that I hope the right hon. Gentleman will indeed go away and consider that reading list. I remind him that it was suggested not just by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) but by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who, I seem to recall, quoted the same source in an earlier debate on programme motions. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do that reading, because he has an opportunity to provide leadership, and because he could gain the appreciation of members of all parties for his work.
I do not want to take up a lot of the House's time. It is clear that the measures that have been proposed are very sensible. They all appear to be minor improvements on the way in which the Select Committee system runs. The measure on quorums is exceptionally sensible in enabling one to avoid making some recondite calculations, which seems to have occurred on previous occasions. Another measure may be the chrysalis of a better future for Select Committees, enabling them to link up with others and to set up Sub-Committee structures. That is a real improvement. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for having taken that on.
486 I was slightly amused by the Leader of the House's comments about the need for Members to attend Select Committees. I agree, but I am sure that he will agree that people attend Select Committees in measure of their relevance and, as he rightly said, the interest that is generated. On the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, we were amused to study the way in which certain Cabinet sub-committees worked under the previous Government. One was about greening government and brought the Ministers of various Departments—the green Ministers—together. It was trumpeted as an important organ of government. We discovered after a certain amount of questioning that, although some 14 out of 16 departmental Ministers charged with responsibilities in the committee had turned up on the first day for the group photograph, thereafter they had sent along permanent officials and had not turned up. Presumably, that was a reflection of the effectiveness that they perceived the committee to have.
It must be the same thing with Select Committees. We may trumpet them as important. They may look important on paper, but if their recommendations are routinely placed in the lower tray and not looked at, if their work is not recognised, and if on top of that they are perceived ultimately to be under enormous Government control—subtle but real—they will not succeed in evolving further. After a commendable period when Norman St. John-Stevas was Leader of the House and Select Committees took off, one has the impression that they have to an extent stagnated, except perhaps in so far as the work of Committees has been extended: they can look across different Government Departments.
If things are to progress along the lines that the Leader of the House mentioned, the Liaison Committee's report of 2000 and its further report of 2001, in which it reviewed the progress of Select Committees, need to be given proper consideration. Part I, the introduction, of the report of 8 March 2001 deals with the point about Select Committee membership being under Government and Executive control. It says:We felt the time was right. Improvements could be based upon twenty years of practical experience. The Government was committed to a programme of constitutional change, including modernisation of the House. With a sharp decline in attendance in the Chamber, it was all the more important to stress an area of the House's work that is seen by the general public as valuable and constructive.
Paragraph 6 says:
the Government's response was disappointing.
Paragraph 21 states:
It is clear that the system for nominating members of select committees must be changed. It is also clear that there is widespread support for such a change.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will have to acknowledge that there is no suggestion that that support has in any way eroded. I welcome the measures that he has introduced, but they should be the first building block towards some sensible changes.
I fully appreciate that the Executive and Government are bound to be wary of measures that give an impression that they might lose control. However, there is much good will towards looking constructively at those matters—if the right hon. Gentleman and the Government wish to do so. We are in the Government's hands, and it would be very nice if there were an opportunity for debate in the next 12 months—and not just in Opposition time, as on 487 the previous occasion—in which we could start sensibly to make progress. If we do, I am convinced that the Government will ultimately benefit. As Lord Norton said, if scrutiny and transparency are improved, a good Government are the ultimate winners. Without such improvement, and however much I might welcome today's proposals, we are just tinkering at the edges.5.25 pm
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I shall not detain the House for long, as I welcome the motions.
The House of Commons does itself real credit when it takes its work seriously, but sometimes we are not perceived as doing so. There are all sorts of reasons why people outside the House do not know what goes on here. They know little about our procedures and there is no particular reason why they should. In some instances, they interpret our role as consisting solely of the work that we are seen to do in our constituencies.
The reality is that, if one makes laws, this is the place to make them. If one scrutinises the work of the Executive, this is the place to do so. It is absolutely essential that any self-confident Government should be prepared to allow that scrutiny in Select Committees, by people who have a vested interest not in causing unnecessary difficulty, but in ensuring that the truth and the responsible decisions of Government are fully and closely examined.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—it is very good that we as a Government have been prepared to support the rapid setting up of the Select Committees. It is precisely because people outside see the movement away from the Chamber and into Select Committees that the Select Committee on Liaison decided that it was time to produce a report. The report is important, and I hope that we shall return to it and examine it closely.
This is one of the few Parliaments in the world in which close examination of the Executive is carried out by people selected by their own Government. We can argue about the niceties of how people become members of Select Committees, but a great deal of control is still exercised over who is selected for which role and when.
I happen to think that the House of Commons is now quite a grown-up institution, and can trust all its Back Benchers. It is the consensus at which they arrive, the work that they do together and the evidence that they take which inform their Select Committee reports. That is absolutely essential to the good working of the Government. A good Government are confident enough to answer for their decisions in public and to trust Members of Parliament to say things that are not always comfortable or flattering. A good Government are determined enough to ensure that their work can be examined with care, because they know that they have taken the right decisions to protect the rights and interests of the electorate.
This Government can set an important precedent by giving the House of Commons such trust. I and my colleagues on the previous Liaison Committee were privileged to serve, and to have the chance to talk to the Leader of the House and the Chief Whips about what we 488 wanted to achieve. Only when such scrutiny is available, and there is such confidence between the Executive and individual Members, will we get change.
This place evolves—it changes all the time—from a position of confidence. I know that Her Majesty's Government will allow us to return to this matter in the autumn.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
In many ways, this is a more important topic than the one on which we spent the earlier part of the day, even though there may be less excitement and Member interest in the question of how the House is to come to terms with an ever stronger Executive—that is not a party political point, and the process has been going on for decades—and a Parliament that finds it more and more difficult to hold them to account. I agree with the Leader of the House that a good Government have nothing to fear, and in fact a great deal to gain, from close examination.
I am not speaking on behalf of a party, as this is a matter for Members at large, but there are issues that directly affect the capacity of certain Members to participate in such holding to account. We warmly welcome the motions and we are delighted at the rapid pace of bringing the Select Committees back into full use, but we think that there is scope to go further. My amendments set out how that might be achieved.
We agree that the reconfiguration of Select Committees to match Departments is right, and that there should be some Committees with a membership of 17. We welcome the capacity for all the Committees to have Sub-Committees and believe that increasing the use of Joint Committees is very worth while. Now, however, I come to the need for the amendments. I apologise for the length of one and the brevity of the other. The complexity of our Standing Orders means that it is hard to express one's intention in plain words.
The intention is that the smaller variety of Select Committee should be increased in size so as to have two representatives from third and minority parties. The purpose is not to seek a benefit for the Liberal Democrats—[HON. MEMBERS: "Of course not."] Hon. Members are clearly sceptical, but we could equally have tabled amendments that directly paralleled the proposals of the Hansard Society or the alternative laid out by the Leader of the House—that all Select Committees should consist of 17. One reason for not doing that was the caution shown by Conservative Front Benchers in discussions about increasing the number of Select Committees in the previous Parliament.
When the Modernisation Committee was considering ways of improving the scrutiny of European legislation, and was minded to propose that there should be five European Scrutiny Committees, to try to get to grips with the great volume of legislation coming from Europe, the Conservative party argued for a lesser growth in Select Committees, and said that it would not be able to provide the additional members.
Perhaps in a new Parliament the Conservatives are more willing, or perhaps more able, to participate in Select Committee proceedings, but one reason for our proposals was to save them the embarrassment of being unable to provide the additional members. I would not be 489 concerned should the House decide that a larger size of Select Committee, with a greater representation from the Conservatives, was appropriate.
§ Mr. Grieve
There was no embarrassment on the part of the official Opposition in making the points that we did. Our points reflected the reality of staffing Select Committees, participating in Standing Committees and ensuring representation in the Chamber. It would have been irresponsible to say that we could do more. My recollection of the Select Committee on which I served is that the attendance of members of the hon. Gentleman's party tended to be rather less regular, and more a la carte, than ours.
§ Mr. Stunell
The hon. Gentleman has made my point for me, confirming my assertion that Conservative Members in the previous Parliament had difficulty servicing Select Committees and that that was the main reason for their objection to increased European scrutiny and the creation of two additional Committees. I simply pray that in aid of a proposal that would leave Conservative representation on Select Committees at its current level. However, if alternative proposals are introduced that would increase the level of Conservative representation, I shall be happy to hear the arguments.
§ Mr. Tyler
It is true that for a long time the Conservative party found it difficult to get former Ministers and senior members to serve on these Committees. It is understandable that hon. Members who have held great offices of state might find it difficult to serve in that rather menial capacity, but if they now take a different view, we must welcome it.
§ Mr. Stunell
The point being debated is not the substantive point of the amendments, but hon. Members seem to consider that this is in some way a self-serving amendment. It is not: we should be very willing to have the representation on Select Committees of Opposition parties increased. I take the point made by the Leader of the House, which was that Labour Back Benchers might be just as effective at providing opposition on occasions. One hopes that they might be more effective than they were in the previous Parliament, but such things change.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) noted, the representation secured for third and minority parties covers nine political parties in this House. It is therefore necessary for consideration to be given to the cause of all those parties, and as result, smaller Committees contain no Liberal Democrat Members.
§ Mr. Forth
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the House would be more persuaded of the enthusiasm of his party and other Opposition parties if there were more evidence of their attendance at this debate? I find it difficult to believe what the lion. Gentleman says about the enthusiasm of his and other parties when I see the empty Benches surrounding him. Moreover, if he raises once more the alleged differential in attendance between his colleagues and mine, I shall invite him to examine the public record of attendance at all Select Committees. I think that that would leave him very embarrassed.
§ Mr. Stunell
It is always as well to do the sums before making such an intervention. In fact, a higher proportion 490 of Liberal Democrat Members than Conservatives is now present in the Chamber. I am not sure that the argument is won entirely on statistics. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)
Order. This argument is getting slightly circular. Perhaps we can get back to the important business before the House.
§ Mr. Stunell
I accept your rebuke, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and apologise if I have led the House in an inappropriate direction.
Amendment (b) deals with the membership of Sub-Committees. I understand the reluctance of the Leader of the House to give instructions to Select Committees on how to form Sub-Committees. When Sub-Committees are established—I hope they will be—to deal with specific tasks or responsibilities in the Select Committee's overall remit, they will contain a sub-set of members of the Select Committee. However, if the membership of Select Committees is maintained at 11, the difficulty will arise that, if two or more Sub-Committees are established—and hon. Members are not entitled to serve on more than one of those Committees—it is axiomatic that one of them will contain only Labour and Conservative Members. That would weaken the accountability and effectiveness not only of the Select Committee, but of the Government, who must be challenged at every point.
We welcome the speed with which the Government have tabled the motion, and its intention. We shall certainly support it, but there is also legitimate interest in getting improved accountability, and support for our amendments will achieve that.
§ Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I am pleased to have the chance to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on getting the motion before the House so quickly, and I hope that we can have the Committees in being in the last week before the recess.
On the question of the quorum, I welcome the fact that that has been made flexible, but there are two sides to the question. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said that if a Select Committee is usually well attended, the quorum should not be a problem. That is correct, but I can remember two occasions in the last Parliament when there might have been a difficulty with the quorum.
On one occasion, a Wednesday morning, there was the funeral of an ex-Member, and clearly a lot of members of the Select Committee wanted to attend that. On the other hand, witnesses had travelled a considerable distance and it would also have been unfair to cancel the Committee at that point; but there was a chance of not having a quorum in that Select Committee.
The other problem is when a Select Committee meets at the same time in the afternoon as a Government statement takes place on the Floor of the House. On those occasions, it seems to me that having a low quorum may avoid embarrassment. However, if we are to have a low quorum, the other side is that there is a responsibility on Members who put their names forward to serve on a Select Committee that they intend to attend.
There is a spat among Opposition Members to do with looking at the record to see whose people turned up most frequently. Sadly, the record is pretty appalling, because 491 all it shows is whether someone was in a Select Committee for a few seconds, just to get the Clerk to recognise that they were there. We have all come across people who nip in, get their mark and disappear. We should spell out to Members who put their names forward to go on a Select Committee that they are committing themselves to doing a piece of work and that they are not just going to get their mark and disappear.
§ Mr. Forth
It occurs to me that one of the problems—I recognise that there are two sides to this matter—is that once a colleague is made a member of a Select Committee, he or she is effectively irremovable, and colleagues may trade on that. It might be worth our considering the possibility of attaching the privilege of membership to the responsibility to turn up; that might concentrate some minds effectively.
§ Andrew Bennett
There are arguments along that line. The problem is actually measuring how people turn up.
The second point is that there are people who turn up fairly regularly but then dodge in and out of the Committee, spending more time on the telephone in the Corridor. We should spell it out to Members that if a Committee sits for two hours, they should be there and participating for those two hours.
That brings me to the question of the size of a Select Committee. I can understand the argument that the more members a Committee has, the more useful things there are for Members of Parliament to do. However, the House also needs to think about the way in which a Select Committee works. My experience is that, in a Committee of 11 members, having eight or so present is about right, from the point of view of chairing the Committee and feeling that everyone is participating.
When there is a larger Committee—I chaired a previous Environment Committee and a Transport Committee that had 17 members—there can be a lot of people there. If 15 or 16 turn up, there can be very little opportunity to participate and it becomes difficult for the Committee to be spontaneous. One cannot let people just jump in with a question when they want to push the questioning in a particular direction. One has to plan the questions formally, and allocate time or take other measures. We should not rush to make the Committees larger, if we want them to be effective and people to attend most of the time. It is not necessarily a good idea to make the Committees larger if we want them to work more effectively.
The motion proposes the creation of two large Committees, one for environment, food and rural affairs and the other for transport, local government and the regions. If we are to have two such big Committees, a strong case may be made for having joint Chairs of those Committees. In the previous Parliament, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee was jointly chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and me.
Some unease was felt about whether the joint chairing would work. People asked, for example, from whom the Clerks would take instruction. However, I believe that we managed to make it work, and I plead with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider having joint Chairs for those two large Committees. In that way, 492 we would have more participation in the management of the Committees than would be possible if they had only one Chair.
The strength of Select Committees' reports is that they are based on the evidence heard and on the reaction of Members who heard it. One of the difficulties for a Sub-Committee is that it hears the evidence but does not have ownership of the report. It reports to the main Committee, which then reports to the House. Members on the main Committee who were not on the Sub-Committee may wish to go back through the evidence and alter the report, without having heard the evidence. It could be argued that the Sub-Committee should be able to report to the House, instead of to the main Committee, and that point should be considered.
If the Select Committees are to work effectively, they must be properly staffed. It is important that when they are set up a little more time is spent on ensuring that they have the right resources. I do not ask for large resources, but there is a shortage of Clerks to cover the Select Committees proposed in the motion. The issue of specialist assistance and secretarial back-up is yet another question.
We must also make much better use of new technology. It is welcome that Select Committee reports now appear on the web, but it is important to examine how we can get the evidence on to the web quickly, so that the Select Committee process can become more of a dialogue. People could read what had been said in evidence to the Select Committee and then send in supplementary evidence.
I welcome the fact that the Government are getting on with making the changes. I look forward to seeing the names down on the Order Paper late next week, and I hope that the Select Committees will be up and running, and effectively scrutinising the Government, when we come back in October.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
I welcome the appointment of the Leader of the House. Over the years I have been in the House, I have developed not only an affection for him, which he may not have understood, but considerable respect for his ability and skill in the conduct of the various positions that he has held, even though I have recently had reason to disagree with him on matters that I need not mention tonight. Having said that, the issue before us is enormously important and I am glad to hear that the Leader of the House intends to review the situation in the autumn.
It is a complex task to get the balance right between the conduct of business on the Floor of the House and the important matter of the hearing of evidence.
On the Floor of the House we deal with things in a fairly broad fashion. However, the absolute requirement of a Select Committee is that it operate on the basis of evidence and analysis. There is therefore one essential requirement for any great reformer of the House—and there is no doubt that we need one. The "Parliament First" early-day motion is supported by some very distinguished Members in all parts of the House, because it is clear that among the fundamental issues that faced us at the general election were apathy, Parliament's failure to connect with people, and the need to restore both faith in politics and an understanding that what we say and do in the House is at the heart of what the voters want.
493 When we are dealing with matters of great importance, whatever the subject matter investigated by any Select Committee may be, it is essential not only that the evidence be properly evaluated but that the Government take it seriously and do not simply, as a knee-jerk reaction, give a short response that effectively ditches the Select Committee's proposals. The Government should give Select Committee recommendations the kind of weight that will enable the members of Select Committees—and the public as a whole, which is what this is all about—to have confidence in the Committees and in the parliamentary process.
We have much to learn from those such as Bernard Crick and others who have studied those questions. I have no doubt that, given the seriousness with which the right hon. Gentleman is taking his new role, he could turn out to be a great reforming Leader of the House.
I can skip over several points quite quickly, because I gave evidence to the Norton committee, and the simplest way of dealing with those subjects, rather than going into them all now, is to send the right hon. Gentleman the evidence that I submitted to that committee, and also to put it in the Library.
I also spoke on the constitutional issues in the debate on the Queen's Speech. The first part of my speech dealt with the reform of Parliament, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be good enough to read that, because it contains a lot of the points that I want to make.
There are still a number of issues that I would like to draw attention to now. First, in the interests of freedom of information, we need to think about the difficult subject of the advice given by civil servants to Ministers, and the extent to which Select Committees can have the opportunity to look at what was going on behind the scenes. There has to be a degree of sensitivity, there are parameters, and it is not an easy area—I do understand that—but there is a serious case, which should be carefully considered.
There is also a case for suggesting that the House should have a free vote on Select Committee reports. That brings me back to a bigger question, to which I am returning, I believe, for the fourth time in a year—the question of amending Standing Orders to reduce the power of the Whips. I do not say that because I do not like the whipping system; after all, I have lived with it for some time. I am happy with the idea, in so far as it is connected with the need for parties to be able to deliver their policies.
However, we are Members of Parliament, and there is an important feature that distinguishes the United Kingdom Parliament from many others that operate list systems, whereby recalcitrant Members—I shall not mention them by name—can simply be struck off the list by the party leaders. That is not in the interests of democracy, because Members of Parliament who have stood out have often eventually managed to convince not only their own party, but the parliamentary process and the electorate as a whole of the wisdom of their views.
There is also the question of the chairmanship of scrutiny Committees. In a sense all Select Committees are scrutiny Committees, but we know what that phrase really means, and there are, I think, only three such Committees in the House—the Public Accounts Committee, 494 the Modernisation Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee. There is a powerful case for the chairmanship of those committees to be in the hands of the Opposition.
§ Mr. Tyler
Two other Committees fall into that category. The Select Committee on Environmental Audit is very much on a par with the Public Accounts Committee, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, on which Members of both Houses of Parliament serve, is also very germane to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.
§ Mr. Cash
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman because I was looking for guidance. I think that the principle is right. To put it bluntly, it does not look good for the membership of Committees to be based on party proportionality of the House so that the majority and the chairmanship are automatically with the Government. The status quo does not provide sufficient balance in the interests of democracy and accountability or in the information that comes out of the deliberations of the Committee for the benefit of the electorate—which is what this is all about.
§ Andrew Bennett
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a contradiction in what he says? He wants to reduce the power of the Whips. Surely if we do that we should be conferring power on each individual. Any individual in the House should be entitled to chair one of these Committees, not necessarily an Opposition Member.
§ Mr. Cash
I am prepared to concede that. I would have agreed with Martin Bell chairing a Committee, for example, had he been provided with the opportunity to do so. I do not think that there is any inconsistency in my argument. By Opposition, I mean non-government. To that extent, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is a serious point. It is essential that the Government be seen to have the confidence to deal with effective, serious and reasoned opposition.
The media are often the interviewers of the nation. I think that that is entirely wrong. I have great respect for people such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, but they are not elected and do not have the exclusive right to be the nation's arbiters. They do their job well—I have been at the receiving end of quite a lot of their interviews. However, it is not their prerogative, on behalf of the nation—through the taxpayers' licence fee—to be the only people determining exchanges between Members of Parliament and the Government. It is an enormously important subject which needs to be considered.
Over the past few months, I have corresponded and had several meetings with Greg Dyke, Tony Hall—before he went to the Royal Opera House—Mark Damazer and their teams on the manner in which such interviews are conducted and the research on the basis of which questions are asked. It gets very political; I do not want to go into it now because it is a separate subject in itself. I think that those people do a great job—I am entirely in favour of the media having the best possible opportunity to take part in national debate—but those in the House of Commons and the House of Lords ought to raise their game to ensure that they perform a function that can be 495 seen to be completely impartial. It cannot be impartial if the Executive effectively controls the Select Committee system.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Does he accept that if the Government gave more serious consideration to the reports of the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament—not least "Shifting the Balance", which is well known to the Leader of the House—the very concerns expressed by my hon. Friend would be dealt with at a stroke? Will he, at an early date, urge the Leader of the House to allow a full day's debate on "Shifting the Balance" and to ensure that the Government are bound by the decisions of the House at the end of that debate?
§ Mr. Cash
I have great sympathy with that view. Indeed, I pointed out that a free vote on such matters was essential. The Government for the second time have achieved a substantial majority and they should have confidence in the system of democracy and accountability in this House. This is a test of the good faith of the Government and the Leader of the House. I trust in the right hon. Gentleman's perspicacity in these matters and I believe that he will take the matter seriously. He has every reason to do so because if he were to go down as a great reforming Leader of the House, it would be a tremendous tribute to the success that he has achieved over many years. I say that despite some of my differences with him on a number of points.
More generally, would it not also be a good idea to increase through education in schools the amount of information about the manner in which these systems of government operate? It is an important responsibility to afford to young people as they grow up and to students at universities special opportunities to study the workings of Parliament in relation to what is going on elsewhere in the world and in the European Union.
As a member of 15 years' standing who serves on the European Scrutiny Committee I believe that there is something seriously wrong with the way in which we scrutinise the legislation, given that under the European Communities Act 1972 there is much of it that we cannot avoid. Let us not camouflage the issue: whether we like it or not, majority voting is implicit in the workings of the EU. It follows, therefore, that decisions are taken which affect this House. Bills which cannot be amended without infringing the fundamental rules laid down by the acquis communautaire are continually passing through the House. Once the Council of Ministers takes a decision by majority voting and even before it is implemented through our enactment, it is binding on us by virtue of the rules established under section 2 of the European Communities Act.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
A lot of this is built on stilts of very thin paper. If the House did its job properly and Members of Parliament turned up to all European Committees and could not only question Ministers openly but table 496 amendments, as they have the right to do in Standing Committees, there would be a different attitude towards much of the rubbish that flows from Brussels.
§ Mr. Cash
Indeed it is. Of course debate has been truncated by the programme motion. That in itself raises a question which comes straight to the responsibility of the Leader of the House and the integrity of his arguments. Nice is an important treaty, but I certainly will not go into it now because we will have some opportunity to look into it during a four-day debate that is truncated by a programme motion. It is essential that hon. Members in all quarters of the House table amendments. I am sorry to say, despite all I have said, that the Leader of the House was the progenitor of the programme motion. It was a terrible shame and he has not heard the end of it yet.
That does not alter the fact that we could be in serious trouble with the grouping of the amendments. The Chairman of Ways and Means will decide on Tuesday whether the matters raised are properly discussed—common foreign security policy, the question of human rights, the movement of the centre of gravity as a result of the enhanced co-operation procedures and so on. I must not and will not go into those matters now, but it is absolutely necessary for people outside the House to understand them, and they will not be able to do so unless there is debate. That is why I tabled 240 amendments on the Maastricht Bill. Whether people liked it or not—whether the former Prime Minister, John Major, liked it or not—as a result of the determination and political will of several Members, we put on the record what was going on in that Bill. That would not have happened otherwise. We can look back to those days with some pride.
Will the Leader of the House be good enough to consider holding a serious meeting with some of us—I look especially to my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) who is the main mover and shaker of the "Parliament First" group motion—so that we can have a good and proper discussion about the operating principles?
There is much to be said for referring draft Bills to Select Committees for consideration, so that we can winkle out some of the absurdities that will need to be changed. There were certainly plenty of those during the previous Parliament and no doubt there will be many under this Government. We must sort that out.
If the European Scrutiny Committee, having regard to the ambit of the legislation on which it is involved, puts on a reserve stating that a matter should be debated on the Floor of the House and that a decision should not be taken in the Council of Ministers until this place has come to a resolution, for heaven's sake let us make certain that that principle is adhered to. Over and over again, the decision of the European Scrutiny Committee is frustrated when it insists on debate on the Floor of the House on highly sensitive matters on which the Government do not want to hear opinions with which they do not agree.
The House is where decisions have to be taken. This is about democracy and accountability. I am extremely glad that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) 497 holds his current position. I look forward to seeing him develop and evolve the ideas being expressed today in a way that is truly in the interests of democracy and of the electorate of this country.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)
What a remarkable and interesting debate. So far, every contribution has been thoughtful and based on experience. Speeches have been cross-party and concise. It is hard to imagine a debate of which that could be said of every contribution. Furthermore, to his great credit, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has remained in his place throughout the debate—as has his junior Minister, the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. The debate has been a model—a rare occasion. If it is to be typical of debates in this Parliament, perhaps we really are entering a new era under my right hon. Friend's leadership of the House.
I join everyone else who has spoken in congratulating the Leader of the House on the speed with which he has moved in setting up the Select Committees. We may have already forgotten that this Parliament is only two weeks old. My right hon. Friend was pressed on day one of the Parliament to set up the Select Committees. He promised that he would do so and he is well on the way to delivering that promise. That is enormously to his credit.
I support thoroughly the detail of the motion—the reconfiguration of the Committees; the wider arrangements; and the changes to quorums. They are right, realistic and reasonable.
The Leader of the House explained why changes to quorums were necessary. Most colleagues on both sides of the House will sympathise and agree with his argument about the attendance figures. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) made an extremely shrewd and experienced speech about the reality of attendance rather than the actual existence of an attendance record. I hope that his subtle remarks were heard by all those Members on both sides of the House who next week will be rushing to put their names forward for membership of Select Committees but who, during the next few months will not rush to attend the Committees in quite the same way.
I suggest that if the new Select Committees had and were seen to have the importance and effectiveness of scrutiny that they ought to have—the status in the eyes of the House, the media and the public—there would be no problem with attendance. The problem is that they do not have the powers and thus the status, so they are not always given priority in people's diaries.
§ Mr. Forth
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one possibility is that at the point at which right hon. and hon. Members volunteer for membership of a Select Committee, they should make available an undated letter of resignation to be held by the Chairman and used if their attendance record is less than satisfactory?
§ Mr. Fisher
I have heard of smoking guns, but the right hon. Gentleman suggests that an about to be smoking gun should be left in someone's hand. That is an interesting suggestion, as was that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish, who said that continuing Select Committee membership should be 498 linked to attendance in some way. That is true of local authority committee membership, and the principle could be adapted to membership of Select Committees. However, it is not a matter of press-ganging Members to join.
All of us would want to be members of Select Committee, and to be assiduous as members, if we really felt that all the Select Committees at all times not only did the work that they should do, but were listened to by the Government and the world outside. Their status and the effectiveness of their scrutiny will determine the enthusiasm of those who serve on them.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that a causal link exists between the low esteem in which Select Committees are held and the influence of the respective Whips Offices in determining their composition?
§ Mr. Fisher
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but there is no simple causal link, nor does any such link cover all Select Committees. Undoubtedly, there was no problem with the commitment and work rate of many Select Committees in the previous Parliament and earlier ones—or, indeed, with their status in the outside world. Examples are the admirable Public Accounts Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and the Transport Sub-Committee under the valiant leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). It is not a simple thing and the causes are subtle and various, as my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said, but there is possibly some link, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.
That brings me to the wider agenda that is only implicit—or is perhaps the dog that is not barking—in the motions tabled by the Leader of the House: the wider agenda of the Liaison Committee report of the previous Parliament and the Hansard Society report, with their rather specific recommendations on powers, selection of membership, resources, status and whether the Chairman should be paid. I very much welcome the positive remarks made today by the Leader of the House, who said that we would debate such matters again later, but not too much later, in this Parliament.
The principle behind those reports, which should inform all our thinking on the issue, is that Select Committees are about the power of scrutiny. When the scrutiny powers of our Select Committees are compared with those, for example, of the Senate Committees in the United States, we can see how very gently toothless our Committees are. There is no direct comparison because we have very different democratic systems, but the principle is the same: those elected on behalf of the electorate have a duty to scrutinise, with real rigour and thoroughness, the actions of the Government. That is good for politics in any country and very good for the quality of government. It is quite sobering to compare how Senate Committees work with the detail and effectiveness of scrutiny of our own Committees.
My other point on the wider agenda in our discussion of Select Committees is the only qualification to my praise for the Leader of the House in setting them up. The price that Parliament has paid for setting the Committees up quickly is that we have not been able to change the 499 basis on which they are made. While I congratulate the Leader of the House, I am sure that he understands that many hon. Members believe that these are parliamentary Committees—reference has been made to the early day motion relating to Parliament First—not governmental Committees. That being so, Parliament, not the Government, should decide their powers, status, responsibilities and membership.
It is quite wrong—as it would be in any other organization—for the Government to appoint or have any influence over their own scrutineers. That does not make sense. The public would not understand it if they were to focus on that point, and we must return to this issue. The Government would be the greatest beneficiary—in the widest sense of the word—of those changes if they were to work with Parliament to return to the Committees the idea that they are parliamentary Committees, and that the responsibility to run, appoint and arrange their affairs should rest with Parliament, not with the Government.
The Leader of the House sensibly and wisely volunteered the quotation by Professor Crick to the effect that we had a common interest. I would go further and say that the Government have, in the long term, the greater interest. Let us imagine the way in which the press and the public would respond if the Government gave away some of their powers for the first time in 100 years. The credibility that would be heaped on the Government would be enormous, and it would not be at the cost of any effective power or any ability to get their programme through. They would still be able to do that only too easily. However, their esteem would rise in the eyes of the House, of the public and of the world generally.
My right hon. Friend is right: there is a lot to go on, here. I congratulate him on his encouraging use of that quotation from Professor Crick, and I believe that he recognises what we are saying about the importance of these matters and the credit that would accrue to the Government. This debate, and the way in which the Leader of the House is pushing forward these matters, are enormously encouraging for Parliament.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who is the leading light in the Parliament First campaign, which supplemented the activities of the Liaison Committee in the last 12 months of the previous Parliament. He has spoken with great eloquence and he knows that he has wide support in the House. All Members of the House support the campaign that he is leading, and he also knows that he has my 100 per cent. support for what he is doing.
I am grateful for the positive way in which the Leader of the House and his team have responded to the approaches made by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood)—who cannot be here today—and me. The Leader of the House was very positive when we all met. He suggested that there might be problems in interpreting and implementing the Liaison Committee's report, "Shifting the Balance", before the parliamentary recess. However, on balance, we believe that setting up the Select Committees at a very 500 early date was the priority and I am grateful to him for saying today that he will look again at all the recommendations and observations made by the Liaison Committee in the three excellent reports that it produced towards the end of the previous Parliament.
I also endorse the views of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), who has made a good contribution to Select Committees over many years, jointly chairing—as it were—the large Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Select Committee with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich in the previous Parliament. I particularly endorse the reference that he made to quorums. I believe that flexibility on that matter is right, and that reducing the quorum is right. The Procedure Committee—which I chaired—had difficulty meeting its quorum on some occasions during the previous Parliament when we had important people coming before us to give evidence, not least because the Committee of Selection, or perhaps the Government Deputy Chief Whip, had not appointed the full complement of members to that Committee.
I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to what I considered to be an abuse. A Government Member who served on that Committee did not attend once in the final three years of the Parliament. He had told the Government Chief Whip that he wanted to be removed from the Committee, but he was prevailed on to remain a member, although he was told that he need not attend. That is, I believe, a reliable explanation of what happened. I do not intend to name the Member involved, as I blame not him, but the system for allowing that to happen.
I warmly support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in a concise and eloquent speech. What matters is not the number of Members selected to serve on a particular Committee, but their dedication and commitment to serving and to doing the job that the Committee is there to do.
The majority of the Government Members on the Procedure Committee were extremely assiduous and regular in their attendance, which made it much easier for us to do our job. I commend the majority of members for their work and dedication in producing our reports in the previous Parliament. The Leader of the House has been exemplary in tabling amendments to the Standing Orders and trying to set up the Select Committees as quickly as possible.
Nine years ago, I had an experience that exemplifies the remarks of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central about the abuse of the Select Committee system by the Executive of the day. We must take control of Select Committees away from the Executive of the day and put it back in the hands of the House of Commons as a whole.
I used to chair the Health Committee. I pay tribute to that Committee and to a particular member of it who is no longer with us, the former hon. Member for Preston, Mrs. Audrey Wise. I am considered right of centre in the political spectrum and she was considered very much to the left of centre, but I tell you this, Mr. Deputy Speaker: we worked together on that Committee as one. It was a magnificent Committee. Indeed, it achieved so much influence that it embarrassed the Government of the day to such an extent that they indulged in a fraudulent practice with the connivance of the then Chairman of the Committee of Selection. They created a rule that worked 501 against me to try to break the Committee's influence and impact, even though it comprised not just me, but all those who were members of it, and they succeeded. That was a tragic abuse of the House that shows how an Executive can manipulate the Select Committee system.
§ Mr. Winterton
I thoroughly endorse my hon. Friend's observation, and I know that the Leader of the House is well aware of the important Liaison Committee report on the matter. My hon. Friend is right that the power of the Whips, the usual channels and the establishment in trying to influence, if not dictate, who serves on Select Committees must be ended. That power must be put back in the hands of Back-Bench Members.
The Leader of the House has done a magnificent job and I am delighted to say that from the Conservative Benches. I went to see him with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, because at the end of the last Parliamentwe had been mandated by the Liaison Committee to act as a co-ordinating group to get the Select Committees set up and he has honoured in every way the commitments that he gave us. I hope and believe that he is sincere because I have great regard for the right hon. Gentleman. Whichever Department he has been in, he has done a magnificent job, both in opposition and in government. If, along with the House and those Members who value the role of Select Committees, he will look at the recommendations of the Liaison Committee, I believe that he will strengthen Government, because a House of Commons that can properly hold to account the Government and the Executive of the day will produce a better Government and better legislation.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
I do not intend to detain the House long, although it would not be to the inconvenience of a great many Members were I to choose to do so. I hate to introduce a note of dissent to the debate, but I am afraid that my experience of serving on some three Select Committees during the last Parliament does not fill me with quite the same awe of those Committees as has been expressed today. A real measure of the importance that we actually attach to those Committees can be made from noting the attendance at this debate.
I principally wish to discuss quorums and the measure that we have before us which, for the greater convenience of Select Committee members, proposes reducing those quorums. It certainly would have been for my greater convenience. I can recall on one occasion during the last Parliament rushing from one Select Committee meeting in the Upper Committee Corridor, down the stairs to the floor below to another Select Committee meeting. Of course that was down to the Committee of Selection, 502 which appointed me to two Select Committees that met at the same time on the same day. Nevertheless, I had to rush from one Select Committee to the other in order to maintain the quorum on the floor below and to prevent the embarrassment that would otherwise attend that Committee, as witnesses had come from far afield in order to be interrogated. It certainly would have been to our convenience if the quorum had been lower.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) has explained one of the problems that attaches to maintaining a quorum. Of course it might be difficult if a Committee meeting is held when a statement is being given to the House. However, it strikes me that there is a measure of contributory negligence in that, by arranging for a Select Committee to meet when there is likely to be a statement to the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) gave us two examples of how it is difficult to maintain a quorum, given the existing system for appointing members to Select Committees and, without giving names, he cast aspersions on the Members concerned. However, the answer must be to reform the system by which we make appointments to Select Committees, not simply to accommodate that corrupt system by reducing the quorum. It strikes me as absolutely monstrous to table a motion to reduce the quorums when the glaring problem is the very way in which we appoint Members to Select Committees. I believe that Select Committees would indeed achieve the importance that we allegedly attach to them if their members had to seek the approval of the whole House before their appointment. If they had to canvass support among their fellow hon. Members rather than have the privilege conferred on them by the Committee of Selection, greater importance would attach to their appointment and, of course, they would be under much greater pressure actually to attend the meetings.
§ Mr. Cash
I have great sympathy with the thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks, but as was shown by the number of Members who leapt to their feet, there is a problem with his argument. He is right if the decision taken by the whole House were on a genuinely free vote—which takes me back to the necessity of changing Standing Orders so that the Whips cannot interfere in those votes. However, it would not produce the right result.
§ Mr. Swayne
I am not sure that I agree with my hon. Friend that it would not produce the right result. I am constantly assured that the importance of Select Committee work is that it is non-partisan, but I am not convinced of the merits of non-partisanship. I think that confrontation does a great deal to increase attendance at Committees. If we accept the often used argument that Select Committee work should be entirely non-partisan, I do not agree that a vote by the whole House would produce the wrong result.
§ Mr. Winterton
Does my hon. Friend accept that Select Committee reports should be based on the evidence 503 given, whether it is oral or written? That is the importance of Select Committees. Decisions and recommendations should not be made according to people's individual partisan views or prejudices.
§ Mr. Swayne
Of course. However, a clever member of a Select Committee can elicit the evidence that he wants by influencing the choice of witnesses to be called and by skilful questioning of those witnesses. I certainly believe that members can have great influence. It is my experience—from one Select Committee in particular—that a member can have a great deal of influence on the report that is produced.
§ Mr. Bercow
My hon. Friend's speech is veritably warming the cockles of my heart. However, leaving aside the logistical inconvenience of having speedily to transport himself from one Committee to another, does he agree that Select Committees often suffer from a triple problem? First, there is a tendency in some of them towards a rather formulaic style of questioning, which does not necessarily illuminate the subject matter. Secondly, the Whips are far too influential in determining the composition of those Committees. Thirdly, there is an alarming tendency, which has been exacerbated under this Government, for Ministers, in advance of the publication of the reports of the Committees, to brief against them with all the advantages of the government machine at their disposal. That does nothing to encourage confidence in the system.
§ Mr. Swayne
My hon. Friend is quite right, although I assure him that it was not my intention to have any effect on the cockles of his heart, whatever they may be.
§ Mr. Swayne
Indeed, or wherever they may be.
My hon. Friend draws attention to an important issue. It has been my experience in one or two Select Committees that members are often busy and have not had time to do all the reading, so when they arrive at the Committee they are presented with a list of questions drawn up by the Clerks. It is, in effect, the Clerks who do the interrogation, even though their questions are put into the mouths of the Committee members. I suspect that the Clerks have a greater role than the public may imagine in writing the reports of the Select Committees.
A great deal of nonsense is talked about Select Committees. We attach huge importance to them and the great work that they do. Undoubtedly, some Select Committees do their jobs effectively, but not all of them are in the same league.
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
One of the more intriguing aspects of the debate is that it gives rise to a phenomenon with which some of us are fairly familiar. We all do a balletic dance around the subject at issue. We have an interest in doing that, because most, if not all, of those forgathered here have a deep emotional attachment to the concept of Select Committees and the way in which they work. There are distinguished Select 504 Committee Chairman present, as well as a number of colleagues who have spent a great deal of their time and commitment on the work of Select Committees. That. however, should not blind us to a fact to which my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) just alluded. I suspect that I agree with him more than some earlier speakers.
Let us look back to the genesis of Select Committees. I think that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) mentioned this. We fooled ourselves for the best part of 20 years. As I recall, someone somewhere looked fondly across the Atlantic and said "Our American friends have the most wonderful system of legislative scrutiny and accountability; can we have some of that?" With all good will, that system was imported across the Atlantic.
I am very much in favour of things being imported across the Atlantic. I imported Mrs. Forth from across the Atlantic. What more can I say? Mrs. Forth probably works better than the Select Committees. But on this occasion the problem was glaringly obvious from the start. We chose to ignore the fundamental difference between a legislature that has Congress on the one hand only, and a legislature—this legislature—in which the Executive is, in fact, part of the legislature and has control over it.
Most of the difficulties that have been described today flow from that fundamental fact. We are perpetually caught by the same problem: we want a system of Select Committees that allows us to scrutinise the Executive effectively, but at the same time we must live with the fact that in our system of parliamentary government the Executive control the House. I fear that, until we find a way of breaking out of that system, we shall be stuck with the problem for a long time.
The Liaison Committee report has rightly been mentioned frequently today. I admit that it will be difficult to solve the problem in one leap, but the report constitutes a considered, moderate and modulated effort to move us in the right direction. Nevertheless, I can see why the Government, and even a parliamentarian of the stature of the Leader of the House, will always be reluctant to take that step: Governments find the existing arrangement all too convenient. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) illustrated one of the more extreme examples, but there are almost certainly many others.
So here we are, struggling with this motion. The Leader of the House—I join the many others who have given him credit—has responded rapidly to requests made to him, and to his colleagues, to accelerate the process of appointment of Select Committees, and we must all welcome that; but there is a catch. He knows and we know and we know he knows, and so on.
If we had tried to hold up the establishment of Select Committees—which, I submit, would have been within our grasp—we would have been hoist by our own petard. Had we told the Government and the Leader of the House that we were profoundly dissatisfied with the means by which Select Committees are currently established, we would have delayed the establishment of Select Committees, and found ourselves with exactly the same problem as before.
Thanks to the Leader of the House, we shall have our Select Committees, but they will be established under the very procedure with which we are nearly all profoundly 505 dissatisfied. Is that progress, or is it not? I hesitate to make the judgment, but the dilemma in which we find ourselves can be seen very readily.
The motions give us an opportunity to be grateful for the limited progress that we are making, but also to point out that the Leader of the House has neither fooled us—although I am sure that that was not his intention—nor seduced us into thinking that all is well, and that the accelerated appointment of Select Committees legitimises the process whereby they are already being established. It should be understood that any progress we are making is very limited, and that mutual congratulation is not in order.
§ Mr. Bercow
If the Leader of the House was keen to set up the Select Committees as early as possible in the current Parliament—principally, if not exclusively, to avoid the charge that he has created, or allowed to continue, a vacuum—but was perfectly open to the idea of a change in their composition, would it not be helpful if he said just that before the end of the debate? Would it not be helpful if he said "Yes, I want us to get on with our work, but I am entirely open to the idea of competitive elections to Select Committees, in which the Whips Office will have no involvement whatever"?
§ Mr. Forth
My hon. Friend is legendary for his optimism and generosity of spirit. I suspect that I may be almost as legendary for my lack of those characteristics. I cannot share his view. I hope to give the Leader of the House an opportunity to sum up the debate, which I am sure he will do with his usual skill, but not before I have said a few more words about one or two other matters.
Regrettably, I cannot agree with the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). The other fact of parliamentary life that we all understand all too well is that our Front Benchers and our business managers all share a joint and mutual understanding of the power of patronage, which is so important to them and which is expressed, among many other means, in the ability to appoint members of Select Committees. I believe that the parliamentary Labour party works in a different way. It has told us that it elects its members of Select Committees, so in a funny way the Labour party is perhaps less guilty of that offence than others.
In my party, the system seems to work in the traditional way. Members are asked whether they would like to participate in a Select Committee, but our usual channels arrogate and keep firmly to themselves—certainly, they have done so hitherto—the power to give colleagues a place on an appropriate Select Committee. It is worse than that.
The other truth that usually dares not speak its name—I am about to reveal it since we are in revelatory mood, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West has illustrated—is that there is then a disgraceful little carve-up of Select Committee chairmanships by the Front Benchers—talking of which, I give way to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).
§ Mr. Tyler
I, too, have been in revelatory mood as an ex-member of the usual channels. The other night, I pointed out to the House that not all Select Committee memberships must be put on the Order Paper by an Officer of the Crown; some Select Committees can be 506 elected by the House. Indeed, it is possible for hon. Members to make representations to the Committee of Selection that the recommendations from the usual channels are not appropriate, so, even within the existing rules, there are some ways in which we might make some progress along the lines indicated by the ever optimistic hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow).
§ Mr. Forth
The hon. Gentleman is correct—at least technically he is correct—and these are motions to which amendments can be made, but the reality lurking behind all that is that, in this Parliament, as in the previous one, the Government have been given a huge majority by the electorate. In the end, the Government will have their way. Indeed, the Front Benchers will have their way because my right hon. and hon. Friends are in the conspiracy right up to their necks, along with the Government—talking of which, I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
Before my right hon. Friend ventures any further down that route, I ask him to refer to the report in Hansard of the debate on a motion for the Adjournment just before the House rose for the election. He will find that, on behalf of the Conservative Front-Bench team, I supported the Liaison Committee's view on changing the system of selection and election for Select Committees. He must have missed that bit.
§ Mr. Forth
No, I did not miss that bit at all. I am talking about something quite different, before my hon. Friend gets too upset. I am talking about the fact that we do not elect members of Select Committees, as the Labour party does. I am also talking about the fact that, as I understand it, our so-called usual channels, or whatever they call themselves these days, still do a deal with Government Whips and Front Benchers on who will get what chairmanships. I suspect that our Front Benchers allocate the chairmanships to certain privileged colleagues. That is all I am saying.
There is nothing particularly secretive about it, but I say that to illustrate the point and lest we kid ourselves that the Select Committee procedure is a creature of the entire House. It is nothing of the kind. As far as I know, it is, has been and remains a creature of the Front Benchers. Let there be no illusions about that.
§ Mr. Bercow
My right hon. Friend suggested that I was unduly optimistic, but I certainly do not want to be mistaken for an imitator of Dr. Pangloss. He should not take the Labour party's evident approach to these matters entirely at face value. Has it occurred to his fertile mind that the fact that there is an election process in the Government party on the composition of Select Committees does not mean that there is not a sinister, invisible hand at work in the form of covert intervention, back-slapping, threats and so on from the Patronage Secretary?
§ Mr. Forth
That may be, but provided that the ballot is secret, most of my hon. Friend's dark suspicions are addressed. As in the up-coming election for the leadership of our party, and for reasons that the House well understands, the secret ballot may well bring about many surprises that will shock some of the candidates. 507 However, I want to move on because in a few more minutes I will sit down to allow brief winding-up speeches.
I want to say a few words about the matter of the quorum, which is one of the other distressing aspects of the debate. It is rather sad that we must wash such linen very publicly, but inevitable, I am afraid. How can Select Committees, grand and important though they are, vital though their work is to our democratic processes, occasionally find it so difficult to muster a quorum? That must be to our collective shame. We must try much harder to find an answer to that problem. It appears that colleagues are all too ready to submit their names to serve on Select Committees, but that if they find it just a tad inconvenient to attend and do their work, they are not present when it matters. We must turn our attention much more urgently to that tendency.
Another argument that has arisen in the debate concerns the size of Committees. In this case, size really does matter. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) gave an acute analysis of the issue, and I am with him on it. I suspect that, if Select Committees are to be as effective as we all hope, the smaller they are the better—and for a number of reasons. With his enormous experience, the hon. Gentleman summed up those reasons much better than I could. Therefore, I resist, certainly for the time being, the blandishments of the Liberal Democrats on the matter. If we increase the size of Committees, we may reduce their effectiveness even further.
Worse, there is a budgetary aspect to the argument. I say to the Leader of the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, as members of the House of Commons Commission, that in increasing the size of Select Committees, we shall increase the size of the travelling caravanserai that they so often become. That will happen unless we cap Select Committees' total travel budget and let them argue among themselves about its allocation. In that case the bigger ones would travel less because there are more people on them. That solution appeals to me, but I should like the reassurance of the Leader of the House that he agrees.
I predict with some confidence that if we increase the size of Committees but do not cap the travel budget, the Liaison Committee would say, "We need more money for travel because there are more of us on Select Committees and we've no intention of curtailing our travel plans." These matters are never as obvious or straightforward as they seem. There are always wheels within wheels, which is a rather good metaphor for travelling Select Committees.
I hope that some good can come from this debate and our deliberations on these matters, so that we can look with much greater honesty at Select Committees, the work that they do, the work that we expect them to do and their membership. Then, we would be able to make some positive and constructive suggestions to improve their workings. On that, I shall attempt to be an optimist.
§ Mr. Grieve
What started as a debate on a narrow issue has snowballed to cover a large number of topics, for the simple reason that there are many topics to be covered.
508 I entirely endorse the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), that we should not live in a Panglossian world, imagining that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. There are many aspects of Select Committees that are formulaic and could do with being reformed, but that will start only when the ball gets rolling. If this is going to start that ball rolling, it is a tremendous event, but if not, we are missing a tremendous opportunity. I hope that the Government will grasp the opportunity that they have been given.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg)
We have had an excellent short debate on a set of proposals that has proved largely uncontroversial, which may explain why the debate has ranged rather wide of them.
I begin where the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) began: it is right to place this debate in the context of the need to reconnect people with politics and in particular to try to make Parliament more relevant to the lives of ordinary people, especially in the light of the low turnout at the general election. That is a sensible background for consideration of the proposals.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made it clear that the various proposals from the Liaison Committee, the Parliament First campaign, the Hansard Society and the Norton commission ranged far wider than what we are discussing today. I repeat his undertaking that we will return to those proposals, as we accept that this is a real debate that is happening both within the House and more widely.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) spoke about resourcing and staffing support—a legitimate issue, but not one that is properly a matter for Government: it is a matter for the House of Commons Commission. The Leader of the House sits on the Commission, and that is the right place for the matter to be considered. We will ensure that that happens.
The hon. Member for Stone raised the broader question of education in schools about Parliament and its work. I very much associate myself with his remarks. The issue of citizenship in schools is a live one, and we should all seek to make this place more relevant to both primary and secondary schools.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of draft Bills being referred to Select Committees. The Government certainly favour greater pre-legislative scrutiny. The matter was considered at great length in the previous Parliament in the Modernisation and Procedure Committees. The Government have undertaken that draft Bills that relate to a single Department may be scrutinised by the appropriate Committee. That is clearly a first step, but there is scope for considerable further work if we are to have the broadest and deepest pre-legislative scrutiny that we can achieve.
Several hon. Members spoke about quorums. It is important to emphasise that a quorum is a minimum, not a target. We do not aim to have only a small proportion of a Committee present. We simply want to ensure that its work can continue. The matter should clearly be kept under very close review.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish spoke about having joint Chairs. My understanding is that that is a matter for the Committees themselves. As he 509 said, that was the practice followed by the then Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament. If the new departmental Committees want to continue that practice, it is up to them.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) spoke to his two amendments. In his opening speech, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House set out the Government's response to those amendments, and I urge the hon. Gentleman not to press them to a Division. We have seen that there are various points of view in the House about the appropriateness of increasing the size of Committees. Certainly, I am sympathetic to the point about ensuring representation for the Liberal Democrats—they form the third party in the House—and for other, smaller parties. However, we must also take into account the needs and interests of all hon. Members, including those who belong to the principal Opposition party, as that party will not benefit from the proposed change with regard to Select Committee representation.
Labour Back Benchers must also be kept in mind, and my right hon. Friend undertook to ensure that the question of membership would be reviewed. I hope that that undertaking will enable the hon. Member for Hazel Grove not to press the matter to a vote.
Amendment (b) deals with Sub-Committees. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, the proposals before the House would enable Select Committees to make such decisions for themselves. Like my right hon. Friend, I expect that it would be proper for a Select Committee to include on a Sub-Committee any minor party member who wished to be on it. However, I think that that should not be imposed by a decision of the House today, and therefore hope once again that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove will not press the matter to a vote.
The debate has ranged beyond the specific proposals before the House. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) placed the matter in the broader context of the history of Parliament, and set out some of the factors that make the British Parliament distinctive among other legislatures in the world. All hon. Members will agree that the British constitution is evolving. There has been much change in recent years, starting with the introduction of Select Committees 20 years ago, and this Government introduced important changes in their first term.
The remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in opening the debate reflected the Government's determination to address the matter of Select Committees, and the relationship between the legislature and the Executive, in a serious manner. There is a determination that hon. Members of all parties should be able to contribute to that debate.
I welcome the tone and content of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who praised the proposals and said that they were sensible. He pointed out that they amounted only to the first building block, and suggested that good will exists among Opposition Members on this matter. As a result, the debate has been good tempered, and several positive contributions have been made, both about the proposals and, perhaps more important, about the need for a broader strengthening of Parliament's scrutiny role. That strengthening would require greater power for the Select Committees.
510 I am sure that my right hon. Friend is grateful for the many kind remarks about his appointment and about his record as a very effective parliamentarian. I should like to thank in particular the three hon. Members from the Select Committee on Liaison who are now present in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) made supportive remarks in the debate, which reflects the real good will evident in most contributions to today's proceedings.
I am sure that the House will return to these matters in the weeks and months ahead, but I think that there is cross-party consensus in favour of the proposals. If the House approves them, we will aim to get the Select Committees up and running before the summer recess, so that their very important role in scrutinising the Executive can begin. On that basis, I appeal for support from all hon. Members for these proposals.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,That the following amendments be made to Standing Orders: