HC Deb 21 December 1967 vol 756 cc1491-6

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That a Select Committee be appointed to consider the activities in England and Wales of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and to report thereon;

That the Committee do consist of twenty-five Members.

That Mr. William Baxter, Mr. Peter Bessell, Mr. Terence Boston, Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith, Dr. John Dunwoody, Mr. William Edwards, Mr. John Farr, Mr. Tony Gardner, Mr. Garrett, Dr. Hugh Gray, Mr. Paul Hawkins, Mr. Bert Hazell, Mr. J. E. B. Hill, Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine, Mr. Peter M. Jackson, Mr. James Johnson, Mr. Michael Jopling, Mr. Clifford Kenyon, Mr. John P. Mackintosh, Mr. Peter Mills, Mr. Elystan Morgan, Mr. Derek Page, Mr. Patrick Wall, Mr. Tudor Watkins, and Mr. John Wells be Members of the Committee.

That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any Adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to admit strangers during the examination of witnesses unless they otherwise order; and to report Minutes of Evidence from time to time.

That six be the Quorum.—[Mr. Crossman.]

12.29 p.m

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)

It is extremely important that the Select Committee on Agriculture should be re- appointed. I have no wish to delay the House, particularly the debate which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) is to raise in a few moments. I was a member of the last Select Committee and I think that those of us here who were on the Committee—and I see a number of them on both sides of the House here—feel that it was extremely important and novel experience for Members and that it was conducted very much on non-party lines. That Committee produced a Report during the Summer Recess on its work, which involved looking at the implications for British agriculture of joining the European Economic Community —

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot, on this Motion, discuss the work of the last Committee.

Mr. Jopling

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I will come to the point immediately I wanted to make. My difficulty is that the Leader of the House has not allowed a debate on that previous Report. Now we have today's Motion to set up the Committee again.

I am glad to see that the right hon. Gentleman is here, and I want to ask him, first, why it is that he has extended the number of members. It was extremely satisfactory before, as I am sure other members of it would agree. I have looked for some explanation, and I have not been able to discover it.

The principal reason why I am speaking today and asking for a little time is the item on the Order Paper which says that the Committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records ". That is all very well. I agree that the Committee should have power to send for them. But, as I understand, there is no onus on anyone to provide them. I want the Leader of the House to tell us what those words mean, because our experience on the previous Committee was that we had all these grandiose and sweeping powers, but, when we tried to use them, we were not given any satisfaction or help.

The last Report was marred because of the actions of the Foreign Office and the Government in not supplying us with some papers. During our proceedings, we had a clear conflict of evidence be- tween the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture and our Ambassador in Brussels. On that occasion we asked to have some papers—

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, this is the kind of matter which the hon. Gentleman can discuss in the Committee when it is set up. May I remind the House that we have business set down for today? I hope that we shall not spend too long on what is almost a procedural Motion.

Mr. Jopling

The difficulty is that the Committee discussed the matter at great length, and we did not have an opportunity to ask the Leader of the House what these powers meant and whether or not we had them.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Richard Crossman)

I can perhaps shorten this discussion a little. This is really a procedural Motion. The question of having a debate on either the Report of this Specialist Committee or the Science and Technology Committee is one which we have been discussing through the usual channels. I have given an assurance that a Report will come. Surely the time to discuss this point is when we debate the Report of the previous Committee and not on a procedural Motion setting up the Committee once again.

Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)

I think that there is a point in what my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has said about the powers to send for persons and papers. May we have an assurance that such requests will be responded to adequately?

Mr. Crossman

This Committee is given the precise powers of any other Select Committee to call for persons and papers. How Committees use them varies enormously, and their success in using them depends largely on their skill and experience. I am sure that this Committee will be no less skilful than other Select Committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Estimates Committee. I have never heard of any discourtesy, and there is always discussion as to how much of the information supplied is revealed.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) has the Floor, two right hon. Gentlemen having intervened. Mr. Jopling.

Mr. Jopling

I understood my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) to ask me to give way, and I was giving way to him. If it is in order for me to give way to him—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If an hon. Member gives way in succession to a number of other hon. Members who wish to intervene all at the same time, it may be that I shall forget that he had any right to address the House at all. Mr. Jopling.

Mr. Jopling

I must press this matter, having sat as a member of the Committee for the earlier part of this year and knowing that we had nothing but trouble about it. We could get no sense out of the Government. A series of Ministers appeared before us, but they gave us no satisfaction. I must press the Leader of the House to tell us what these powers mean. Here is a Select Committee being set up. We are told that we have these powers, but our experience tells us that the powers mean very little. On the last occasion, we wanted to see a letter which would show us clearly who was right and who was wrong. It was a simple internal letter which passed between our Ambassador in Brussels and the Foreign Office. We were not allowed to have it. That is the sort of thing which makes a mockery of a Motion like this, and—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make his point briefly. I remind the House again that we have allocated from 12 o'clock to 5 o'clock for hon. Members. This is largely a procedural Motion. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I hope that any hon. Member who wants to make other points will do so briefly.

Mr. Jopling

Mr. Speaker, this is a matter on which 25 hon. Members will spend many hours during the course of the next seven or eight months. I think that it is not unreasonable to ask for an explanation from the Leader of the House. I think that I have made my point. We want to know what these words mean and whether we have the powers or not.

Mr. Crossman

It would not be in order for me to discuss the Report of the Select Committee in which it has made certain complaints. We shall debate its Report in due course.

I have been asked what powers the hon. Member has as a member of the Select Committee to call for papers. He has the powers of a member of the Select Committee to call for papers, and the Select Committee has powers which are neither more nor less than those of any other Select Committee which has been set up in the last 30 years.

What we are discussing is the appointment of a Select Committee, with the powers which go with the appointment. It would not be in order, surely, for me to argue whether they are good or bad powers. We are discussing whether a Committee should be appointed with such powers as a Select Committee has. Surely we should be content to appoint it. Having appointed it, if there is a wish to change its powers, a quite different Motion should be tabled.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

I wish to ask the Leader of the House one question which bears strictly on the procedural Motion. Last year, following representations from a number of hon. Members of all parties, the right hon. Gentleman added two Scottish hon. Members to the Select Committee after it was constituted. This does not meet the point which some of us are still making. By the terms of the Motion today, the activities of the Department of Agriculture in Scotland are not affected by the Select Committee's powers. This is a serious point, and it applies also to the Committee on Education. In setting up these Committees, the right hon. Gentleman must decide to include the equivalent Departments in Scotland or, alternatively, he must set up a separate Select Committee to investigate the activities of the Scottish Office.

Mr. Crossmanrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would help if any other contributor spoke first. Mr. Hill.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

I want to associate myself with the criticisms of my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling). It is obvious that we need time on the Floor of the House to discuss this matter.

In respect of today's Motion, may I ask whether the Committee has power to set up and operate through sub-committees? This very large extension of membership will make it hard to work out a procedure of detailed examination on technical subjects.

Mr. Crossman

Speaking off the cuff, if the Committee wished to do so, we might have to pass a procedural Motion. We did so in the previous case. Certainly there would be no objection, and I hope that it would take a shorter time than this one is taking.

Mr. David Steel

May I have an answer to my question?

Mr. Crossman

I have a good deal of sympathy with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel). In the case of the Education Committee, I think that it will cover the activities of the Scottish Office. In the case of agriculture, we have repeated what we did last time and included Scottish hon. Members on the Committee. I know that it is not perfect, and I hope that we can do better.

Question put and agreed to.


Standing Committee B, which stands adjourned till the first Tuesday or Thursday on which the House sits after the Christmas Adjournment, to be further adjourned till Tuesday 23rd January at half-past Ten o'clock.—[Sir B. Craddock.]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitch.]