Motion made, and Question proposed,
That Mr Robin Cook and Lorna Fitzsimons be discharged from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and Dr John Reid and Caroline Flint be added.—[Mr. Caplin.]
§ 5.6 pm
§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
There has been a depressing pattern to these motions of late. Sadly, under new management, the Government appear to be following the same practice. I hope that, at some point, the new Leader of the House will assure us that the practice will cease. However, I suppose that we have to give him a little time to run himself in before he realises what is going on.
The motion looks routine—some might say almost bland—but it contains some potentially rather controversial elements. The House would want to pause a moment to consider whether we want to go ahead with the motion in its present form, given its implications.
The motion deals with the so-called Modernisation Committee, which is a Select Committee of the House. I have never concealed my views on modernisation. The so-called modernisation process has been a wicked and evil development that has systematically diminished the power of the House of Commons effectively to hold the Government to account. That is my view of what has come to be called modernisation. Debates and votes have been eliminated and the ridiculous deferred Division system has been introduced. Worst of all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out in the previous debate, the systematic, routine and vicious timetabling of Bills in Standing Committees has led to most legislation not being properly scrutinised by the House.
The Committee has radically changed the relationship between the House and the Government over the past six years or so; anyone returning to the House after an absence would find it unrecognisable. All the proposals emanating from the so-called Modernisation Committee have been to the detriment of the House of Commons as a legislature. Therefore, we are entitled carefully to consider proposals, such as the one before us, that change the membership of the Committee.
The first issue that arises, self-evidently, is that, following the departure of the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who had been its Chairman and President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, we now rightly confront the anomaly of the phenomenon of a Select Committee being chaired by a senior member of the Government. In other words, a member of the Executive is chairing a Committee that is supposed to decide what the relationship should be between the Executive and the House.
It is arguably wrong not only for a senior member of the Government to chair a Select Committee, but for the Modernisation Committee, of all Committees, given the role it has played in altering the relationship between the House and the Government, to be chaired by a member of the Government in whose interests it could be to diminish the role of the House and enhance that of the Executive. The House has taken that for granted all too readily during the five or six years in which the revolting Committee has been in existence.
377 The apparently innocuous motion provides us with the opportunity to examine directly whether the House is satisfied with the fact that having just got rid of the previous President of the Council as the Chairman of the Committee—although he got rid of himself, strictly speaking—it is invited to appoint a new one. I shall address the chairmanship in a moment, although only in passing because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will tell me that even an attempt to explore that issue is not strictly relevant, which I accept. The motion invites us to add the new President of the Council, who is a senior member of the Executive, to the membership of the Committee. That is why the House should pause and decide whether it should endorse the motion.
I wondered whether my colleagues and I should table amendments to the motion to change the membership of the Committee. I hesitated and decided against that for a proper reason: until now, we have always honoured the undertaking that neither side of the House interferes with the right of the other to nominate Committee members. I want to honour that proper relationship. However, we could reject the motion and compel the Government to suggest different names. If the House did that, it would have decided that it was entirely inappropriate for the President of the Council to be a member of the Modernisation Committee for the reasons that I have outlined.
The situation is worse that that. The motion proposes that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) should take the place of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) on the Committee. What is the significance of that? The significance is where the hon. Member for Don Valley is sitting, because she is sitting loyally and supportively behind the President of the Council, and I understand that she has the honour to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
That poses a further dilemma, because we are invited to commit not only the folly of adding the President of the Council to the Committee but the double folly of allowing his Parliamentary Private Secretary to serve on it with him. How can we be sure of the impartiality and integrity of the Committee if members and pseudo-members of the Government serve on it? How can we expect the Committee to examine the relationship between the House and the Government in a proper, impartial and balanced way if at least two of its members are members—albeit one of them marginally—of the Government? [Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) wish to intervene? I shall give him the chance to say something; I invite him to put something on the record.
§ Mr. Forth
The hon. Gentleman declines my offer, which is a great pity because I am in a generous mood. If he wishes to speak, he has only to catch my eye and I shall oblige him.
So we have identified the issue that emanates directly from the role of the Committee both in the past and as it will be under the guidance of the President of the Council if he is made not only a member of the Committee but, as was his predecessor, its Chairman. I 378 consulted "Erskine May", as one always does if one is wise, to make sure of my facts, and on page 637, under the heading "Proceedings in select committees", it says:Election of chairman. The chairman of a select committee is chosen by the committee itself except in rare cases when the House otherwise orders.We do not have the power or opportunity to order that today, whether we would want to or not, but I am happy that "Erskine May" confirms that when the Committee's composition is decided—whether we agree to the motion today or subsequently—it will be free to elect its Chairman.
I hope that the Committee will consider our proceedings today. I hope it might even consider my modest contribution and—who knows?—the contribution of others, and ask itself a serious question: lumbered as it may be by the House with the presence of the President of the Council and his faithful and loyal Parliamentary Private Secretary, does it really want that same President of the Council to be its Chairman, or would it not rather have a more independent spirit?
We have with us today the living embodiment of an alternative approach, in the shape of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I did not tip him off about that, which is why he looks pleasurably surprised. He, as a distinguished and senior member of—for the time being—the Opposition, chairs another key Committee that is involved with matters pertaining to the House, the Standards and Privileges Committee. It is now acknowledged—I pay tribute to the Government for this—that a senior member of the Opposition should properly chair that Committee.
Following that precedent—I would go further, and I think my right hon. Friend would endorse what I say—his Committee recently accepted the proposal that no Parliamentary Private Secretary should serve on his Committee, because the fact that Members are Parliamentary Private Secretaries can sometimes raise a scintilla of doubt about their impartiality in dealing with the House or, in the case of my right hon. Friend's Committee, in dealing with Members.
The precedent exists. What I am suggesting does not come out of the blue. It is not strange, new or different. A Committee of the House has already determined that it is proper and appropriate for a Committee dealing with House matters to be chaired by a member of the Opposition, rather than a member of the Government, yet the motion, with the names that it proposes, represents the denial of that proposition.
It looks as though the Leader of the House intends to make a contribution to the debate. I hope he will. He is Looking pregnant, so perhaps he will honour us with his thoughts, once others have caught Madam Deputy Speaker's eye. I hope that we might hear the reflections of the Leader of the House on how, if we agree the motion, he would see his role as a member of the Committee, and whether he has any aspirations to chair the Committee and to submit his name in the proper way.
If the right hon. Gentleman confirms that, and before we vote on the motion, the House would welcome his views on how he sees his role as a member, if not the Chairman, of the Committee and, more importantly, how he would square his vital role as President of the 379 Council and Leader of the House with his role as a member, if not the Chairman, of the Modernisation Committee, given the direct bearing that its recommendations have on the relationship between the House as the legislature and the Executive.
I welcome the opportunity provided by the motion to explore these issues, to satisfy ourselves as a House that this is indeed the appropriate and proper way forward, and, even better, to hear from the prospective member and—who knows?—even the prospective Chairman, if the Committee were so to decide, how he sees that role and how he would see it developing, were he to be honoured with membership of the Committee and even more honoured by the chairmanship of it.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House deserves and requires an exposition from the Leader of the House and from the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) of where they stand on modernisation? There are shades of opinion across the House as to the enthusiasm with which the process is received.
§ Mr. Forth
I an grateful to my hon. Friend, as I sometimes have the suspicion that, on the Government side, enthusiasts for what has come to be known as modernisation—pathetic souls who want the House to do as little as possible and who want to see the Government triumphant on every occasion—are over-represented on the Committee. I hope that the hon. Lady might honour us with a brief exposition of how she would see her role on the Committee, in order that we can judge her suitability for it. The Committee could benefit from a dose of scepticism. That may or may not be forthcoming from the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady.
This is an important parliamentary occasion. It is an opportunity for the House to give the matter some thought. I shall hold fire until I hear the debate, and perhaps what the Lord President has to say, before I decide how I shall vote on the motion.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
I preface my remarks by saying that personally I have nothing against the Leader of the House. He is a man for whom I have deep respect and affection, and when after the next election my party is returned with a modest majority I hope that we will continue to pair as we used to in previous Parliaments.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for the restraint with which he spoke. He referred to a convention that when there is a vacancy on a Select Committee for one party, another party does not intervene. I think that I recollect that in the previous Parliament a motion proposing that my right hon. Friend be a member of the Commission was opposed. I am not even sure that it was not defeated in a vote. Therefore, he spoke with tremendous restraint this afternoon, against the background of the discourtesy that was extended to him when he was a candidate for the Commission—a post for which he has now assumed responsibility.
Two issues arise, one of which concerns the role of Select Committees. As my right hon. Friend said, Select Committees are the vehicle by which the House of
380 Commons holds the Executive to account. There is a precedent for a Minister sitting on a Select Committee. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury is an ex officio member of the Public Accounts Committee, but he never returns. As I recall when I held the position, I turned up for one meeting and thereafter I played no part in its proceedings. It is crucial to the role of Select Committees that the Executive are not represented on them. The strength of the Select Committee system is that independent Back Benchers chair the Committees.
The Leader of the House is one of the few members of the Cabinet who is not shadowed by a Select Committee. I suppose the other is the Prime Minister, but that deficiency has now been put right by the Liaison Committee interrogating the Prime Minister twice a year.
One could argue that we should have a Select Committee that holds the Leader of the House to account, but what is proposed here—this is the second point that I want to make—is the clearest conflict of interest. The Leader of the House is a member of the Cabinet and it is his responsibility to deliver the Government's legislative programme. He plans the business of the House. If there is a problem with the passage of a Bill, he is answerable to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister for what has gone wrong. He is in the Cabinet to deliver the Government's programme. There could not be a clearer conflict of interest than that same person chairing the Modernisation Committee, which decides the rules that the House will exercise in dealing with that same legislative programme. There could not be a clearer example of short-circuiting the system than the manager of the Government's legislative programme chairing the Select Committee that decides the rules by which that legislative programme will go through the House.
We have an answer to the dilemma: the previous Leader of the House, who is now on the Back Benches, would be an excellent member of the Modernisation Committee. It would then be a matter for the Modernisation Committee to decide whether he should continue to be its Chairman. As a previous holder of that position, I happen to agree with many of the things that the former Leader of the House did. I do not agree with all the strictures of my right hon. Friend about the Modernisation Committee. I happen to believe that Westminster Hall was a sensible innovation.
The answer to the dilemma that confronts the House is for the new Leader of the House to withdraw the motion and allow the Modernisation Committee to decide who of the existing members should be the Chairman. They may choose the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) or someone else. If one could do that this evening, one would answer the criticisms that have been made by my right hon. Friend and the House could adjourn at an early hour.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
If the House had before it a proposition that judges should also be foremen of the jury, it would be laughed out of court, but, in effect, that is what we are debating, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) elegantly made that point.
381 Like my right hon. Friend, I have absolutely nothing against the Leader of the House—quite the contrary. I think that he is an admirable man in every way. He has shown resourcefulness and political courage and he has performed—
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
No, not as my pair as well. I am just putting in a bid. I can think of very few Committees that would not be adorned by his presence and, indeed, by that of the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), his Parliamentary Private Secretary, but not while one is a member of Her Majesty's Government and the other is a bag carrier. That is wrong.
I am one of those who has almost unreserved scepticism about the activities of the Modernisation Committee. When it was formed, I served on it briefly and referred to it at that time as potentially an emasculation Committee. That is what it has done to the House; it has taken away much of the power of the House of Commons and delivered to the Executive a control over the legislature that is inimical to the spirit of a free Parliament. I believe that it has done untold harm to this institution.
I would like the Modernisation Committee to be swept away, bag and baggage, and replaced by a proper business Select Committee of the House to which the Leader of the House would indeed be answerable. Such a Committee would monitor his activities and he would be called before it. I had the honour to serve on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday, when the Foreign Secretary came before us. I believe that the Chancellor has today appeared before the Select Committee on the Treasury. That is the right relationship. Select Committees work pretty well in this place and, by and large, do not divide along party lines. I think that I am right in saying that all the reports that the Foreign Affairs Committee has produced during this Parliament have been unanimous. Of course, we have a Chairman who has been drawn from the Labour party, and that is perfectly proper, but we try to consider issues on their merits. That is how any Select Committee of this House should perform.
What we need is not a Modernisation Committee driven by that spurious buzzword, but a Committee that truly monitors the performance of this Chamber and the various other Committees of Parliament and tries to see how best we should hold the Executive to account. That Committee should regularly examine and interrogate the Leader of the House, who should appear before it, and it should produce reports to the House on the way in which he discharges his functions.
The Modernisation Committee has not served Parliament or the House of Commons well. I do not wish to see the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) remain on it because he has his own agenda and has made that very plain. If we are to have a Chairman drawn from the Executive, I would very much rather that it was indeed the Leader of the House than the right hon. Member for Livingston, because I think that he has less grandiose ambitions in the direction of 382 modernisation, and I hope that we will have bit of consolidation with him if we persist with this ridiculous Committee.
I would also like to see some reversal, because one of the recent innovations of the Modernisation Committee, the changing of the hours of this House, has met a great deal of opposition even from many who supported the recommendations when they were placed before the House. Frankly, those recommendations were driven through by the then Leader of the House, who spoke in such a partisan manner. That was quite wrong.
I urge the Leader of the House, whom I genuinely welcome to his new responsibilities and for whom I have a high regard, to take the motion away—
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
As my right hon. Friend says, it would be very good if the right hon. Gentleman spoke against the motion. That would be marvellous; if he did so, he would earn a lot of brownie points.
I should like the right hon. Gentleman to take the motion away and to give serious thought to my suggestions regarding an entirely different Select Committee to monitor the affairs of the Chamber and the Committees of this House, and to which he would be answerable. If he cannot do that, I hope that, at the very least, he will offer us a self-denying ordinance whereby he will not seek the chair of the Modernisation Committee; that the Committee will genuinely, in a properly free and unfettered manner, choose its Chairman; and that neither he nor his charming Parliamentary Private Secretary will take part in any vote on that issue in the Committee. That is the very least that we can expect.
I hope that when the Leader of the House responds he will acknowledge the force of at least some of the arguments that were advanced with the typically modest, self-effacing gentility of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the delightful verbal elegance of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, and my own bluff common sense.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
I had not intended to try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) jogged my memory when he mentioned the unfortunate precedent of one party's seeking to interfere with another's nomination in respect of the nomination to the House of Commons Commission of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I recollect that that took the form of a motion in the name of a Minister of the Crown—a Government motion—that was voted down by a large number of Labour Members, including 14 Parliamentary Private Secretaries. If my memory serves me correctly, the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) was among them; I am sure that she will correct me if I am wrong.
I am surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that no Labour Member is trying to catch your eye—not least the hon. Member for Don Valley, because the House is owed an 383 explanation of her position on the spectrum of modernisation. We are, after all, being asked to substitute her for the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons). As the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) was reluctant to put on the record his sedentary intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who invited him to do so, I shall do it for him. He was shouting to my right hon. Friend that as the hon. Member for Rochdale, the PPS of the former Leader of the House, had sat on the Committee, it was entirely logical that the PPS of the new Leader of the House should do likewise.
I do not follow that logic. Even if we accept it, however, we are still being asked to support a motion that will substitute two members of the Committee for two others. We are owed an explanation of the position of those members in relation to a subject that is highly controversial on both sides of the House. If they are to be believed, recent reports in the press give us some idea of the position of the Leader of the House on modernisation, which I find mildly encouraging, given my position on such matters. However, I want to hear the hon. Member for Don Valley give an exposition of her views about modernisation. I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will do so; he certainly appears to be making notes. We can look forward to that, but our deliberations will be sadly lacking, Mr. Speaker, if the hon. Lady does not seek to catch your eye.
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) has not yet sought to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want to express my concern at the prospect of a Parliamentary Private Secretary taking up a valuable place on a high-powered, active Committee. By convention, Parliamentary Private Secretaries do not speak when they serve on Committees. That means that a place will be taken by a person who will say nothing. I am sure that the Leader of the House does not need someone to carry his bags into and out of the Committee. The hon. Member for Don Valley would be a bit part player on the Committee. Perhaps the best outcome would be for the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to take the two places. An open contest could ensue on who should become the Chairman.
§ Mr. Chope
I accept my right hon. Friend's comments, namely, that whatever a Parliamentary Private Secretary said would merely echo the views of Front-Bench Members and the Government position.
Positions on the Committee are scarce. In a bidding process, I am sure that many bids would be made for a place. The current Leader of the House aspires to serve on the Committee, and the former Leader of the House would like to continue to serve on it. It would therefore be sensible for both to be members and for the Committee to determine the chairmanship.
384 There is an unhealthy development in the House whereby the Executive determines the chairmanship of Select Committees. That is inherent in the motion. I was first elected in 1983 with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and others—I believe that the intake included more than 100 new Members. Shortly after arriving, places became available on Select Committees. I did not serve on one, but a colleague believed that I did and invited me for a drink in Annie's Bar. He lobbied me strongly to vote for him as Chairman of that Select Committee. When I said that I did not believe that people who were not members had a vote for the Chairman, he admitted that he had mistaken me for another hon. Member. He abandoned his drinks immediately—it is fortunate that he had already paid the bill—and went off to try to lobby more effectively.
That happened in an era when the Government, despite having a large majority, tried to keep their nose out of Select Committee's affairs. I hope that hon. Members will take the opportunity to re-establish the convention that Select Committees should be run by hon. Members who are not part of the Executive and that the two should be kept separate.
§ The President of the Council (Dr. John Reid)
As ever, I came to the House this evening with great humility and reluctant to say anything. I regarded my addition to the Committee as a fairly minor matter and I was well aware that any contribution that I could make would be humble and restricted, especially compared with the auspicious contributions of the hon. Members who are present. I am fortified and a little flattered by the attention of so many prominent Members, especially from Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, to my possible addition to the Committee.
The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) will be gratified and reassured to know that I have reflected carefully on the matter. Ever since I entered the great ideological struggle in the forum of politics at the age of 16 or 17, my burning ambition was to be a member of the Modernisation Committee of the House of Commons. The thought of participating in debates at the highest echelons of the parliamentary process ranked with our other priorities such as full employment and modernising the welfare state. However, it was not always the top the priority. I therefore reflected on the matter over the past few days with some misgivings and an understanding of my limited capacity to deal with such matters.
Indeed, I consulted fairly widely on this issue and found a broad range of views. I discussed it with Labour MPs from all walks of life before I finally made the decision, and I am glad that we have had a balanced contribution tonight from the other side of the House. It is a pity that the Liberals are not here to add their contributions and to explain why we should have another penny on income tax, and matters of that nature. I understand that they are away, no doubt adding to their election effort and looking after their own interests rather than the interests of the nation. Despite the motivation to get involved in politics, members of the other parties here have had regard to their duties as Members of Parliament and not just as campaigners.
385 I can assure Members who were worried that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) displays on all occasions the independence of mind that we have come to expect from Labour MPs in here. Some would say that such independence has been displayed far too often in the Chamber in recent times, but it is nevertheless part of our thriving democracy in the House and inside our party. My hon. Friend knows well that she will be free to speak her mind if the motion is passed tonight.
I therefore believe that this is, in the last instance, a reasonably straightforward motion. It proposes to replace two members of the Modernisation Committee with two others. I would claim no greater status for it than that. Moreover, it proposes to replace two members who no longer think it appropriate to serve on the Committee. Several hon. Members have indicated that they wished it were otherwise, but the former Leader of the House has said that, for reasons well known to the House, he no longer wishes to serve on it. Indeed, I think that he might even have said that to the Committee, long before this matter came before the House.
§ Mr. Forth
The Leader of the House says that this is a simple, straightforward matter. Would he, however, grace us with a brief discourse on how he can reconcile his role as a senior member of the Executive with the role of the Modernisation Committee as a Committee of the House, and one that should enhance the role of the House vis-à-vis the Executive? How will he be able to do justice to those apparently conflicting roles?
§ Dr. Reid
Whether it will be brief, or a contribution meriting the description of "discourse", I do not know, but I am going to turn to that issue because it is meritorious in terms of requiring a response, particularly as the right hon. Gentleman, who is so learned in these matters, raised it earlier, as did one or two of his colleagues. The point that I was making was not that this was a straightforward motion but that I came to the House thinking that it would be. However, in passing, we should note that the Leader of the House has served on the Modernisation Committee since its inception in 1997. Those who are listening to this debate in the House or outside it could be mistaken for thinking that some great radical unprecedented step had been taken this evening. In fact, I am the fourth—and probably the least worthy of those four—to have deigned even to step over the threshold of the Committee.
I should like to pay tribute to the excellent work done by my predecessors— particularly that of my immediate predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston—as Chairmen of the Modernisation Committee. I shall come back to the question of Chairmen, as opposed to membership, in a second. It can truthfully be said that my right hon. Friend put great energy and commitment into modernising the House and its procedures. Considerable progress was made—not always in a direction that everyone entirely agreed with, but anyone would accept that progress was made on rationalisation and modernisation.
386 I know of the caricatures attributed to me on the issue, but let me say that whatever reservations I had about certain aspects of it are as of nothing compared with the almost complete and blank refusal of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to enter the same century, far less the same intellectual framework, regarding modernisation. As he spoke, I had visions, as we sometimes do, of an airline stewardess making an announcement as the plane lands, "Welcome to the Conservative party. Please put your watches back 200 years." The robustness with which he opposed any change genuinely merits the name "Conservative" and he typifies in every way why the Conservative party is utterly incapable of governing in modern Britain, although I am the first to admit that it contains some of the great minds of the 18th century. However, it lacks a capacity to deal with some modern problems here in the House as well as outside. Even my predecessor would acknowledge that much remains to be done.
§ David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I broadly support the reforms and there is undoubtedly a majority for them in the House, but will my right hon. Friend consider this point? If he is to be on the Modernisation Committee—I do not suppose that there is any doubt about that—will he consider with his colleagues the matter of Tuesdays? There is a strong argument for Tuesdays to have the same hours as Mondays. Also, if we are concerned about modernisation, we must consider the fact that letters to constituents cannot reach them until the following day unless they are posted before 6 o'clock. Surely that is quite disgraceful.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was drawing his remarks to a close. We are discussing the membership of the Modernisation Committee.
§ Dr. Reid
I do not want in any way to display the complacency and arrogance involved in assuming that the motion will be passed either tonight or in the future, or that I will be elevated within the Committee. My hon. Friend, having made his point, will understand why I do not immediately address it. It would require an assumption of arrogance so to do.
However the objections were presented, certain points were worthy of being raised and considered, although in a more balanced way than that used by my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. Such balance was shown by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and, of course, by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). Incidentally, I find it rather intriguing that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, having raised the spectre of a conspiracy to pack the Modernisation Committee not only with hacks such as me—I am not sure whether he 387 used that word, although I think he did—but with loyal friends such as my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley, immediately went on to say that the man who should really be on the Committee is the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who has been my pair here for 15 years. He would be regarded with even greater suspicion, no doubt, had that been known when the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst made his comments. I am afraid that if there is a conspiracy to pack the Committee with my friends and intimates, the right hon. Gentleman was this evening part of it, although perhaps inadvertently.
Let me deal with the two questions that Members have raised. The first is whether I have tabled a motion that would make me a member of the Committee and whether that Committee would be free to choose its own Chair. The answer to both questions is yes.
I have no great ambition. I am not driven by any agenda. I shall become a member of the Committee if the House so wishes, but like any other MP I shall be at the service of the House and its Committees should they decide to elevate me to the chairmanship. I am content to await the decision of my colleagues.
The second question was this: is it not wrong for a Select Committee, particularly one established to consider how best to modernise the procedures of the House, to be chaired by a Minister?
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
The right hon. Gentleman has used a very unfortunate phrase, namely "to modernise the procedures of the House". I believe that that responsibility lies with the Procedure Committee, which I have the honour to chair. May I ask whether, if the House appoints the right hon. Gentleman to the Modernisation Committee and if he ends up as Chairman because of the Labour majority on it, he will seek to work closely with the Procedure Committee, and will not try to take to the Modernisation Committee responsibilities and duties which—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is going on rather long, and is perhaps a little wide of the motion.
§ Dr. Reid
Having cunningly caught the hon. Gentleman's eye by using the word "procedures", I can assure him that I would indeed seek to do that. I have no doubt that he would seek to reinforce his own view that procedures should be a matter for the Procedure Committee, and that other matters should be dealt with by the Modernisation Committee. I am sure that that will provide substance for many discussions in future. I would not dream for a moment of going beyond usurping control of the Modernisation Committee—of which I already stand accused—to usurp the hon. Gentleman's role and try to dominate the Procedure Committee. That unfortunate implication arose from the way in which I described the Modernisation Committee.
I was dealing with the second question—whether it was contrary to any reasonable way of approaching the chairmanship, or indeed membership, of the Committee 388 to give either to a Minister. On the contrary, I do not think such action would constitute a sign of any diminution of the Committee's importance in the eyes of the Government, or of their commitment to its work. If anything, the decision to allow the Leader of the House to become a member and subsequently Chairman—which was, in fact, incorporated in the Labour party manifesto when we came to power—was a public and practical indication of the importance that we attributed to that work. The membership of someone in the Cabinet would show how seriously the Government took its deliberations.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst rightly pointed out that the Leader of the House—myself, for the time being—is a member of the Executive, and of course there is tension between the Executive and Parliament. He must also recognise, however, that the role of the Leader of the House is rather unusual. An obligation is placed on him not just to represent the Government in the House but, in a way, to carry the House's sense of responsibility into Government. The tension that that produces is epitomised in some respects by the tension between Executive and legislature. That does not mean to say that, despite those tensions, there is an incompatibility between the two arenas that does not benefit, on occasion, from a dovetailing or cross-representation. I hope that, as Leader of the House, I can do that in general, and specifically as a member of the Modernisation Committee. If asked honestly whether I will have regard to the burden of work on Ministers, I can answer yes, just as I will have regard to Ministers' obligation to be accountable to this House. I do not deny that there is a tension in that, too, but in principle or in absolute terms, it is not necessarily incompatible to combine both; nor does doing so constitute a precedent in itself.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is addressing these matters in a very sensible manner. However, will he give serious thought to the desirability of replacing this Committee with one of the sort that I mentioned, to which he, as Leader of the House, would be answerable, in the same way as his Cabinet colleagues are answerable to the other Select Committees?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I must remind hon. Members that despite their desire to widen this debate, it is about the membership of the Committee.
§ Dr. Reid
I respect your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. In any case, if ideas exist about modernising the relationship between the Executive and Parliament in such a fashion, the very body that would consider them would be the Modernisation Committee. Were I to be a member of it, I would of course be obliged to give consideration to them, and I would do so with as open and objective a mind as possible, recognising the prejudices that are forced on me because of my position. There is no one in this House who does not pre-judge—we all bring preconceptions to any consideration that we give—but the most dangerous people are those who do not know that they bring prejudices and preconceptions. I hope that that is in some way reassuring to all Members present.
389 The point was also made, with which I completely disagree, that all of this would be more properly dealt with if we were debating the establishment of a Committee. The real objection here is to the type of Committee that I will be on, if the House so wills, not to my being on it. That may well be a legitimate view, but that issue has already been agreed on and, as I understand it, it is not for discussion this evening.
The question of other Select Committees approaching decisions with unanimity, consensus and collectivity was also mentioned. Despite what is sometimes said, that would be my style and wish. That was certainly my approach on the other Committees on which I served—not least the Committee dealing with armed forces legislation, on which I served for several years. I think that I am correct in saying that, under the previous Leader of the House, the decisions taken and the proposals made were unanimous—so I do not think that there is such a great distinction between the deliberations of the Modernisation Committee and of other ones.
I pointed out that a balance of duty is incumbent on the Leader of the House. The views of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst are sincerely and passionately held and within the framework of his ideological preconceptions, commitments and passions. Everything he has said this evening is utterly consistent with the view that we expect from him, but he will not be surprised to learn that I do not entirely share it. Nor do I think that his views on the Modernisation Committee will be widely shared in the House. There will be a constituency for them, consisting of the arch-traditionalist viewpoint, and there is nothing wrong with that. I recognise that a sense of security, comfort and stability derives from that viewpoint, but perhaps it is tinged by the extremist element of traditionalist view. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman, who sees himself as a fairly radical reformer of conservatism, obviously does not agree, but he will not expect me to accept that his is the widely held view in the House.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
Will the Leader of the House concede that, in the context of the modernisation of the House, change is not necessarily synonymous with progress or improvement?
§ Dr. Reid
Change is not synonymous with improvement and it is never easy. It was once said that nothing is more painful than the birth of a new idea, and that applies in the House and outside it. It is often difficult, particularly for people of more mature years, to accept change. I remember Bob Hughes, when he was the Member for Aberdeen, North, telling me a story about changing from the simple method of finance that we used to have. There were thrupenny bits, sixpences, 12 pennies in a pound—sorry, I mean 12 pennies in a shilling; I have got it right even though I am not a Minister in the Treasury—and 240 pence in the pound. We moved on to the dreadfully complex system of metrification with 100 pence to the pound. Bob Hughes was on an Aberdeen bus at that time—this is a true story—listening to two old ladies bemoaning the change that had been forced on them under the European system of metrification, as they put it. At the end of a 390 long critique of all the ills that had been imposed on them, one of the old ladies summed up the situation with a sigh by saying, "You would think that they'd wait at least until all the old folk had died out before bringing the new system in."
I fully realise that change is never easy and that it does not necessarily mean that things will improve, but that does not mean that nothing can be improved upon, or that everything should be conserved as it has been for centuries. That, if I may say so, is the essence of conservatism, and it explains why Conservatives, by definition, find it difficult to live in today's world because it is different from yesterday's world. It also explains the astounding support over the past few years for the progressive party that sits on this side of the House.
Precedent does exist for my proposal. There is precedent under the previous Conservative Administration for Ministers chairing important Committees of this House—although not the Modernisation Committee, of course. Although the questioning of the wisdom and rectitude of having a Minister and his Parliamentary Private Secretary on to the Modernisation Committee has been sincere, I hope that I have reassured some colleagues and that they will find it possible to support my proposal. I am pleased to have such unanimous support on the Government Benches, which has not been so evident recently, so I am particularly gratified about that this evening. I hope that hon. Members will find it acceptable for my membership to proceed, as incorporated in the resolution.
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Am I permitted to speak? I understand that the debate can continue until 7 pm.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
It is certainly unusual, and the hon. Member knows that it is not customary to speak after the Minister's winding-up speech. If he wishes to make a contribution, however, he may do so. I merely point out what is customary.
§ 6.3 pm
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
I am grateful for that reprimand, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I apologise to the House for not being present earlier. I was attending to other important duties outside the Chamber.
§ Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)
Further to that point of order Madam Deputy Speaker, is it not a breach of procedure for a Member to enter the debate after the winding-up speech?
§ Mr. Michael Jabez Foster
I was raising the question whether it was a breach of procedure—I know that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is keen to uphold procedure—to come into the debate after the Minister's winding-up speech.
§ Mr. Forth
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. When the House sits on Fridays, as colleagues who assiduously attend will know, is it not 391 perfectly normal for the Minister to decide at which stage of the debate he or she will intervene; and is it not even more normal for other hon. Members to speak after the Minister? I am not aware of any rule of the House that says that once the Minister has spoken, no one else may speak, particularly if an hour of parliamentary time is left unexpired.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I remind the shadow Leader of the House that I did not say that it was inappropriate or procedurally wrong—merely that it was not the custom to speak after the Minister has wound up the debate. By all means, if he wishes to speak, I am happy to call Sir Nicholas Winterton.
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
I am extremely grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I repeat that I accept your modest reprimand regarding the fact that I was not here for the beginning of the debate and that I wanted to speak after the Leader of the House. However, I want to be helpful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am a pragmatist. I believe fervently in the integrity of the House of Commons, and that the House's integrity and independence in dealing with the Executive needs to be improved. Because I am a pragmatist, I shall not oppose the motion. In fact, I proposed his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee at the beginning of this Parliament.
I realise that the Government have a substantial majority in the House. In the end, members of the Government decide what should happen in this place and, for that matter, who should chair Committees. I listened to the response given by the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow Leader of the House. Certainly, we will look to the Leader of the House—in his anticipated capacity as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee—to best represent the interests of the House of Commons in dealing with the Executive.
I am Chairman of the Procedure Committee, which sits on the same day of the week as the Modernisation Committee. I shall not oppose the appointment of the Leader of the House as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee. His predecessor adjusted the Modernisation Committee's starting time to 3.45 pm on a Wednesday, to assist me in continuing to play a part as a member of that Committee. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his assurance that he will honour the position, tradition, duties and responsibilities of the Procedure Committee, of which I am Chairman, in his capacity as a member—and, I believe, in due course, as Chairman—of the Modernisation Committee.
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
I shall go further, here on the Floor of the House. I have not indicated as much to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. 392 Swayne), but if it is thought appropriate by the Committee, I should be happy to propose the Leader of the House as Chairman—
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
It may annoy my hon. Friend, but the Committee exists to represent the best interests of hon. Members in dealing with the Government of the day. At some stage in the future, the Government will be a Conservative and Unionist Government.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have enormous affection and regard for him, but it is a great pity that he should be making this speech without having listened to the powerful arguments from his colleagues among Conservative Members as to precisely why what he advocates should not happen.
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
I repeat that I am a pragmatist. I am well aware that the present Government will do what they perceive to be right, as long as they have the co-operation of Labour Members. I believe that they are likely to achieve that co-operation. It would seem to be rather stupid and naïve of Conservative Members to tell the Leader of the House that we oppose his appointment to the Modernisation Committee, as we know full well that he will be so appointed. Further, it would be infantile, irresponsible and stupid—and a total waste of time—to have a major debate in the Modernisation Committee next Wednesday to oppose the right hon. Gentleman's appointment as Chairman of that Committee.
I merely look to the right hon. Gentleman and hope that he recognises my commitment to the House. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), I am a Back Bencher. Apart from a short period he has been a Back Bencher for the overwhelming majority of his time in the House. I have been a Back Bencher for all the time that I have spent in the House; and for one reason—
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
I am grateful for that compliment. As I have said once or twice in this place, I was born with a mouth and I have been prepared to use it according to my judgment and experience.
Although I have mixed views about a member of the Cabinet actually chairing the Committee, I am realistic enough to know that, in a few minutes' time, the right hon. Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill will be appointed to the Committee and that next Wednesday he will be appointed its Chairman. I want to work closely with him and his party colleagues on the Committee in the best interests of—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Whatever the merits of the possible Chair of the Committee, we should concentrate on its membership at this point.
§ Sir Nicholas Winterton
Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker; but in order for the right hon. Member for 393 Hamilton, North and Bellshill to be Chairman, he has to be appointed to the Committee, which is what the debate is about. I look to the right hon. Gentleman to give the same commitment to the Modernisation Committee as his predecessor, and I hope that he will be prepared to work with the other members of the Committee in the best interests of the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Robin Cook and Lorna Fitzsimons be discharged from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and Dr John Reid and Caroline Flint be added.