HC Deb 05 November 2001 vol 374 cc64-74
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Before I call the Leader of the House to move the motion on the Liaison Committee, I should announce that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

6.40 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I beg to move,


(1) With effect for the current Parliament, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of Select Committees), the Chairman for the time being of each of the Select Committees listed in paragraph (2) below shall be a member of the Liaison Committee:

(2) The Committees to which paragraph (1) above applies are:

(3) Mr. Alan Williams shall also be a Member of the Liaison Committee.

I need not detain the House for long because I imagine—I hope not wrongly—that it is common ground across the House that we want the Liaison Committee set up, and that is the purpose of the motion. Only a couple of weeks ago, I received a letter signed by many of the Chairs of the new Select Committees urging us to make progress in setting up the Liaison Committee. I responded to that in the motion that is before the House.

For myself, I did not need urging to set up the Liaison Committee. I am keen to see it in existence soon. One of the reasons for that is that the Modernisation Committee is making good progress towards a report to the House on Select Committees and their valuable role in scrutiny. Obviously, we cannot hope to complete that report until we have a Liaison Committee from which we can take evidence on our proposals.

Perhaps I can say a couple of words about the terms of the motion. First, the motion takes the form of listing the 32 Select Committees that are relevant to the Liaison Committee and stating that the Chairs of those Select Committees will be members of the Liaison Committee.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

For the sake of complete accuracy, will the Leader of the House confirm that, happily, the motion refers to the Chairman for the time being of each of the Select Committees"? Would he perhaps like to use the correct wording instead of the nonsense that he has just used?

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)


Mr. Robin Cook

As my hon. Friend demonstrates, there are different views on whether it is I or the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who is being nonsensical on this matter. It is a matter of fact that the Standing Orders refer to Chairmen, and that is why the motion before the House uses that term. If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will use a gender-neutral term that I have been using for several years, on the whole without causing the offence that it has caused the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Forth

It caused derision.

Mr. Cook

Given the choice between offending some of my hon. Friends who are members of another gender and causing offence to the right hon. Gentleman, there is no contest; it has to be the right hon. Gentleman whom I offend.

To return to the matter of substance, the motion takes a different form in the sense that it lists the Chairs, rather than the names of individuals. Had I tabled a motion that listed those eligible by name, there would have been further delay because two Select Committee do not yet exist, so I do not yet have the names of their Chairs. Had we proceeded differently, we would have had to find time to amend the motion as the Chairs changed. We had to amend the 1997 motion four times during the Session because of changes in personnel. The particular format that we have tonight does not require any such change. If there are changes in the Chairs of Select Committees, there will automatically be changes in the Liaison Committee without our having to trouble the House further.

The motion proposes to include in the membership of the Liaison Committee my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). There is a precedent for appointing a senior Member to the Liaison Committee. In 1992, the previous Administration appointed Sir Terence Higgins to the Liaison Committee. So successful was that precedent that, at the end of the Parliament, and before the 1997 general election, the Liaison Committee recommended that, in future, it should include a senior Member.

I do not think that there is any dispute on either side of the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West is a senior Member. He has given distinguished service to the House and to its senior Committees. He is a longstanding member of the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and he also served on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. He has a wealth of experience of the proceedings of the House and the work of its Committees. It is right that that experience should be available to the Liaison Committee to be drawn on in whatever way it wishes.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have indicated that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment to the motion. I have had no overtures about the amendment, which is perfectly respectable; there is no reason why any overtures should be made to me on the completion of the tabling of an amendment. However, in the circumstances, I will want to hear the case for the amendment before I respond to it.

I hope that the House will not be sidetracked from the central issue. We need this motion to set up the Liaison Committee. We moved quickly after the general election to set up the Select Committees; indeed, they were set up in record time. Tonight's motion maintains that momentum.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The Leader of the House said that he was listing the Committees by name because two had yet to be set up. Given that he has just described the welcome momentum towards setting up the Committees, can he explain why the Committee on Science and Technology has yet to be appointed?

Mr. Cook

The sole reason is that we have been looking for nominations to make sure that we have full membership. I hope that, in the course of this week, we may be able to take that forward. I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that we will make progress as soon as we can because I want a full slate of Select Committees.

As I said, the motion is necessary if we are to have the Liaison Committee. We are all agreed that we need the Liaison Committee and we all want the Committee to be set up. I hope that the House will agree to the motion tonight.

6.46 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I very much welcome the motion and join the Leader of the House in recognising the vital role that the Liaison Committee plays in the proceedings of the House. I accept completely the point—an important one for the smooth running of our affairs—that the motion should be worded as it is, referring to Chairmen of Select Committees, both departmental and domestic, rather than named individuals, because that eases our procedures in an acceptable way.

There is a paradox in the motion, but it emphasises that the Liaison Committee traditionally has been composed of the Chairmen of the Select Committees, departmental and domestic. That is well understood by members of the House, and those who wish to envisage a greater role for the Liaison Committee are content with that. That much is common ground.

Having said that, neither my colleagues nor I have any difficulty with the suggestion that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) be made a member of the Liaison Committee, for the reasons that the Leader of the House has given. The right hon. Gentleman, whom I know well and respect greatly, brings to the House, and will bring to the Committee, experience and wisdom that are well appreciated. However, were the right hon. Gentleman to be thought eligible to be the Chairman of the Liaison Committee—I should have thought that that was a distinct possibility—it would raise the question whether such a position should be filled by a Government or an Opposition Back Bencher.

It may be that, in the wider consideration of the role of the Liaison Committee and of Select Committees generally, that sort of issue may be pondered in the future. I am not saying that it will necessarily affect immediate decisions, and I am not in any way seeking to interfere with or influence the decisions of the Liaison Committee. However, something that has bothered me for some time about the role of Select Committees is that they have tended historically to be dominated by Government Members. That is something to which the House may wish to return at some stage.

Having said that, I must confess that I am less happy with the idea contained within the amendment; that we start appointing other additional members to the Liaison Committee, apparently on an ad hominem basis. Whatever the virtues of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan)—I have no doubt that they are many—I cannot avoid stating a fact into which I hope hon. Members will not read too much. The extent to which the right hon. Member for Swansea, West has enormous experience and knowledge of this House is clear; he has been a Government Minister and has served with great distinction on Select Committees. The same can hardly be said of the hon. Gentleman referred to in the amendment. Like the Leader of the House, I am waiting with bated breath to hear from Liberal Democrat Members the reasons for the amendment and why they believe that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam would add lustre to the Liaison Committee. I remain to be convinced about that.

I may take some convincing. We have been on solid ground until now in acknowledging that the Liaison Committee will consist of Select Committee Chairmen and, for the reasons given, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West. However, if we create a precedent by adding other members willy nilly we could be at the top of the legendary slippery slope or at the thin end of the legendary wedge. That could lead us in directions that none of us can foresee. I fear that the influence and standing of the Liaison Committee could thus be diluted. I put it no more strongly than that.

I welcome the motion and its reference to Chairmen rather than named hon. Members. I am content with the suggested addition of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, but I have yet to be convinced about any other changes to the traditional shape and structure of the Committee.

6.51 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I beg to move as an amendment to the motion, in paragraph (3), leave out shall also he a Member and insert and Mr. Richard Allan shall also he Members".

I join hon. Members in welcoming the fact that we are making progress on appointing members of the Liaison Committee. However, perhaps the Leader of the House would like to comment on the time scale. It is curious that we are examining the role of the Liaison Committee in our discussions in the Modernisation Committee, yet we are appointing the members of the former without completing our review. That seems to be the way we tend to do things in Parliament: we appoint people before deciding the role that they should play.

The Committee is large and in due course we shall probably consider whether the departmental Select Committees are properly represented when they are diluted to some extent by Domestic Committees.

I welcome the flexibility that is implicit in the nomination of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). I endorse the words of the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the capacity and skills that he will bring to the Committee. He has considerable experience; I have served with him on Select Committees and I respect his judgment.

However, the precedent to which the Leader of the House referred is not precise. Sir Terence Higgins had previously been a Chairman; he returned to the Liaison Committee because of the need for continuity. A good case was made at the time and his appointment was worth while. However, that precedent does not apply in the case that we are considering. Although I greatly admire the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, I have heard the suspicion expressed in Labour circles that his appointment is a consolation prize for not getting something else. That is unfortunate, and I hope that the Leader of the House will dispel that rumour.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

The hon. Gentleman is not exactly right. Sir Terence was Chairman of a Special Select Committee that was set up for one Parliament and died with it.

Mr. Tyler

That underlines my point that Sir Terence's special skills from previous experience were believed to be desirable.

There are two good reasons for the amendment, which is not the thin end of a slippery slope, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst appeared to suggest. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) chaired the Information Committee with distinction and special expertise in the previous Parliament. Continuity of the work of that Committee affects every aspect of the work of the House. His expertise and experience recommended him as a good addition to the Liaison Committee.

Mr. Forth

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is revealing one of his reasons for tabling the amendment. However, the knowledge and expertise of the current Chairman of the Information Committee is legendary, and he will be a member of the Liaison Committee. Why do we need two e-people on the Committee? Is not one expert enough?

Mr. Tyler

That is a matter for the House. I share the view of those who are more expert than the right hon. Gentleman in such matters. He declares himself a philistine and has frequently expressed doubts about whether we should spend any time or resources on the e-revolution.

There is a better precedent for the inclusion of my hon. Friend rather than for the inclusion of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West on the Committee—the need for continuity. My hon. Friend served not only on the Information Committee but on House Committees that dealt with such matters.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

The hon. Gentleman suggests that the inclusion of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) on the Committee is justified by his previous chairmanship of a Select Committee and the need for continuity. Is the hon. Gentleman implying that every former Select Committee chairman would qualify on the same ground? How would he manage the size of the Committee?

Mr. Tyler

The House will have to decide the matter. Failure to consult about additional members of the Liaison Committee has caused anxiety about the criteria on the basis of which they can be included. The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) nods. When we heard that the reason for the inclusion of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West was the precedent of Sir Terence Higgins, we believed that we had a good case for proposing my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam.

However, we have a second good reason. As the Leader of the House said, the Liaison Committee will have 32 members. The arithmetic of the House should be used as a guide to ensure a proper balance on every Committee. There is only one Liberal Democrat Member on the Liaison Committee because of a neat little carve-up between the Whips Offices of the Conservative and Labour parties and the removal of one of our Chairmen from a Committee.

To enable the House to do what it must do under Standing Orders, as my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has said, we should maintain proportionality and ensure continuity of experience, thus following the precedent created by Sir Terence Higgins.

6.58 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) gave some convoluted reasoning for adding another Liberal Democrat to the Committee. He ultimately reached the real reason for the amendment—to bump up the number of Liberal Democrats on Select Committees. The Liberal Democrats are already over-represented on. Select Committees, whereas the minority parties, or the smaller parties, as I would describe them, are under-represented.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Other parties.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman is right; the other parties are under-represented on Select Committees. I am not making a pitch for a member of Plaid Cymru or the Scottish National party or any other party to serve on the Committee. However, if it grows much larger, we shall certainly be entitled to a member on it.

In the discussions that take place in the dark or through the usual channels, the Liberal Democrats supposedly represent the interests of the other parties. On this occasion, and some others, that has not happened. We were not consulted—

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Neither were we.

Mr. Thomas

Indeed, but we were not consulted about whether we would wish to put forward an alternative name for the Liaison Committee.

The Committee should be set up speedily, because it is important for the modernisation of the House. We must accept, however, that a precedent—small though it is—has been set by the appointment of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), however undoubted his virtues. This debate should open the eyes of all hon. Members to the reality of the way in which Select Committee membership is allocated; who is chosen by the byzantine means of the Committee of Selection; and who speaks up for whom in the selection of members and of the Chairs who then form the Liaison Committee. Those procedures should be brought into the open and changed so that all Members, from all parties, feel that they have a share and a stake in the House's work.

7.1 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said, and I have made similar points behind the scenes since I became the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip. The minority parties and the Liberal Democrats face considerable difficulties because of the method by which the places on Select Committees are decided. Those are on top of the difficulties that all hon. Members perceive when the nominations reach the Committee of Selection. The House instructed the Modernisation Committee to make proposals to put that right and I hope that it will soon do so, because the present situation imposes an unfair burden on those who have to adjudicate such matters—and on this occasion and in relation to Select Committees, that is me.

The minority parties are also disadvantaged, because they are not directly represented on the Committee of Selection. I have made that point explicitly on every occasion when it has been necessary. All I can say to the hon. Member for Ceredigion is that his party is not treated unfairly in mathematical terms. The dispute between his party and the Liberal Democrats is not the mathematics, but the actual selection of individual Select Committee memberships. Unavoidably, political choices have to be made under the current mechanism. I agree with his concerns about the present system and I want the House to reform it, but the amendment attempts to address a different fault in the system.

When the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was taken off the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the House was able to insist that the Government reconsider the decision. The hon. Lady was put back on the Committee, and the decision was made through the Committee of Selection, which is answerable to the House. However, the decision on which party should offer a Chairman for a Select Committee is not the responsibility of the Committee of Selection, and it cannot be recalled or rectified by the House. Whatever problems were caused by the Committee's decision in June, the issue today is currently beyond the reach of even the Committee, never mind the whole House.

The Liaison Committee has 32 members and the Government seek to add another. Of those 33 members, one will be a Liberal Democrat and none—as the hon. Member for Ceredigion pointed out—will come from the minority parties. The House must wake up to the democratic deficit at the centre of its workings. I do not mean the elected dictatorships about which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has written his book, and I am not talking about whether the Prime Minister has too much power. My point is whether the House has the appropriate sense of fairness and urgency to put right its procedures by the simple but crucial step of ensuring that the Liaison Committee reflects the views and opinions in the House.

I remind the House that we expect the Liaison Committee to be a senior representative body for Back Benchers. Indeed, the Committee's report to the House has been a landmark in the House's fight to assert its rights over the Executive, and it has been much quoted. It came from a Liaison Committee whose legitimacy depends on it being seen as representative and able to balance the views of hon. Members. If the legitimacy of the Committee is to be upheld in this Parliament, it needs to take more account in its membership of the outlook, experiences and perspectives of those Members of Parliament who have been denied a reasonable share of its membership.

The amendment would not advance the case I am making. If my case were accepted, there would be four places on the Liaison Committee for the Liberal Democrats and the minority parties. However, the amendment would at least prevent the position from being worse than it was in the last Parliament. We had two representatives on the Liaison Committee in that Parliament, but it is now down to one. Our amendment would simply restore the position to two members, as in the last Parliament.

I urge the House to support the amendment, not only for the sake of the Liberal Democrats and minority Members and not even on behalf of Opposition Back Benchers, but for the sake of the Liaison Committee itself and the role that it seeks to play on behalf of the House. I urge the House to support the amendment because it would be for the benefit of the whole House.

7.8 pm

Mr. Robin Cook

In responding to the debate, I shall not intrude on the private debate between the nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, however enjoyable it was for the rest of us. I would say to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that I hope that the Modernisation Committee's report will propose making the departmental Select Committees marginally larger, because that will do much to resolve the problem that the hon. Gentleman identified.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for his support for the terms of the motion. Between us, we have made a modest step towards modernisation this evening and I hope that the future holds many further such steps. He raised the question of whether the Chair of the Liaison Committee should be a Government supporter. For what it is worth, all the precedents support that. Sir Terence Higgins was the Chair of the Committee through two Parliaments when the Conservatives were in office and Lord Sheldon was the Chair in the last Parliament. However, it would be wrong for us to start to weigh up the relative merits of a potential Chair of the Committee by considering whether he or she is a supporter of the Government. The important question is whether we have found a senior Member with an independent cast of mind, and I am confident that that is what the Liaison Committee will look for.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) expressed some concern about the size of the Committee. That seemed rather at tension with his argument that those who were Chairs of Committees in the previous Parliament should also be members in this Parliament. That could increase its membership to more than 50, rather than 30, so I am not persuaded on that count.

If I may just mildly raise an eyebrow, I was a bit upset to be accused of offering a place to a distinguished colleague as a consolation prize. If any offer of a consolation prize was being made, it sounded to me as though it came from the Liberal Democrat Benches, not from this Dispatch Box.

Nevertheless, I take on board the point that on the basis of the present chairmanships of Select Committees—I seek consensus on this—the Liberal Democrats would be left with only one member of the Liaison Committee. It is important that we do not start to think of the Liaison Committee as one of those Committees to which we appoint Members pro rata, by representation in the House. Strictly speaking, the Liberal Democrats would be entitled to four members on that basis, but I would not accept that as a case for changing the composition of the Committee However, I recognise that to drop from two to one is an unkind thrust when the membership of the House has not changed for the Liberal Democrats. I am keen to maximise support for the motion. Therefore, in a spirit of ensuring the maximum support, I am willing to accept the amendment.

I hope that that will not cause too much distress to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. It is not at any cost to his party, which will continue to retain all the members who were on the Committee at the start of this debate. I hope that on that basis we can all agree to set up the Committee.

Amendment agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.


That, (1) With effect for the current Parliament, notwithstanding Standing Order No. 121 (Nomination of Select Committees), the Chairman for the time being of each of the Select Committees listed in paragraph (2) below shall be a member of the Liaison Committee: (2) The Committees to which paragraph (1) above applies are:

  • Accommodation and Works
  • Administration
  • Broadcasting
  • 73
  • Catering
  • Culture, Media and Sport
  • Defence
  • Deregulation and Regulatory Reform
  • Education and Skills
  • Environmental Audit
  • Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • European Scrutiny
  • Finance and Services
  • Foreign Affairs
  • Health
  • Home Affairs
  • Joint Committee on Human Rights (the Chairman being a Member of this House)
  • Information
  • International Development
  • Northern Ireland Affairs
  • Procedure
  • Public Accounts
  • Public Administration
  • Science and Technology
  • Scottish Affairs
  • Selection
  • Standards and Privileges
  • Statutory Instruments
  • Trade and Industry
  • Transport, Local Government and the Regions
  • Treasury
  • Welsh Affairs
  • Work and Pensions; and
(3) Mr. Alan Williams and Mr. Richard Allan shall also be Members of the Liaison Committee.

  1. COMMITTEES 10 words
    1. c74
    2. ADMINISTRATION 18 words
    3. c74
    5. c74
    7. c74
    8. PUBLIC ACCOUNTS 12 words
    9. c74
    10. ENVIRONMENTAL AUDIT 19 words
    11. c74
    13. c74
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