HC Deb 15 November 1968 vol 773 cc827-38

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Select Committee be appointed to report on the activities in England and Wales of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by 28th February, 1969: That the Committee do consist of Twenty-five Members: That Mr. William Baxter, Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith, Mr. Ednyfed Hudson Davies, Dr. John Dunwoody, Mr. William Edwards, Mr. John Farr, Mr. Andrew Faulds, Mr. Tony Gardner, Mr. Garrett, Dr. Hugh Gray, Mr. Paul Hawkins, Mr. Bert Hazell, Mr. J. E. B. Hill, Mr. Emlyn Hooson, 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. 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: That the Committee have power to appoint Sub-Committees and to refer to such Subcommittees any of the matters referred to the Committee: That every such Sub-Committee do have power to send for persons, papers and records; to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House; to adjourn from place to place; to report to the Committee from time to time; and to admit strangers during the examination of witnesses unless they otherwise order: That the Committee have power to report from time to time the Minutes of the Evidence taken before such Sub-Committees and reported by them to the Committee:

That Three be the Quorum of every such Sub-Committee: That during the present Session the Committee have power to appoint persons with expert knowledge for the purpose of particular inquiries, either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the Committee's order of reference: That the Minutes of the Evidence taken before the Select Committee on Agriculture in the last Session of Parliament together with Memoranda be referred to the Committee.—[Mr. Ernest G. Perry.]

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

While not being able to object to the Motion because of the change in date, may I put on record that it seems unfortunate that this rather contentious Motion should be tabled on a Friday when neither the Chairman nor the majority of members of the Committee are present?

2.19 p.m.

Dr. John Dunwoody (Falmouth and Camborne)

As I was the Member who talked out the original Motion, I should like to say a few words.

This Motion is identical with the one which I talked out except that the date has been changed and the Select Committee has been given an extra eight weeks of life, for which I express my thanks. The points put forward in the short debate eight days ago have been noted. The repeated objections which various members of the Committee made this week to the original Motion have been noted. The Amendment which the majority of members of the Committee proposed to the original Motion has been noted.

Perhaps the new Motion does not completely conform with the wishes of many members of the Committee, but politics is the art of the possible. Therefore, I welcome and support the Motion.

2.20 p.m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

I wish to say how much I regret the attitude of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody). Politics is indeed the art of the possible, but I should have thought that more was possible than has been gained by this exercise.

An important principle is at stake in this Motion. The essence of the Select Committee system is that it is a means whereby the House can control the workings of the Executive more effectively than has been possible through the procedure of the House which has obtained hitherto. That procedure has been devised over the centuries as a check on the Executive at the moment that the decision has been made and must be presented to the House for general discussion.

But such has been the development of the Parliamentary system and of the means whereby the Executive can get its way in the House that this check is often of little more than formal importance. Once the decision has been made, it is almost impossible to have it changed unless it concerns a highly controversial matter which causes a violent division of opinion in the country and the Government decide that, in view of the hostility, they are prepared to have second thoughts. But on detailed matters, which are not always controversial but about which a difference of judgment may obtain, it is important that the wishes of the House, as of every other interested party, should be made known at an early stage. That was the whole point of the proposals concerning Select Committees. The check should be exercised in the formative period before decisions are made.

When this system was started, there was some reluctance on the part of Government Departments to have additional checks placed on them. The attitude at that time was that some initial experiments should be made in a couple of spheres of Government activity. The Select Committees on Science and Technology and on Agriculture have been of very great use. I do not think that any Member who has read their Reports can believe that this experiment has failed. Clearly, it has not. The Select Committees have produced useful information for the education of hon. Members, but, in addition, they have done what was intended of them: they have made a signal contribution to the formation of ideas and the development of decisions before they are taken.

The essence of the issue before the House is this. Should the House be the final controller of its own Select Committee procedure, or should the matter be decided by the Front Benches? I know the arguments put forward for saying that this is a reasonable decision. It is said that there are not sufficient Committee Clerks available, that strain would be placed on the services and facilities on the House, and that Members are already committed on a large number of other activities and, therefore, there are not enough of them to staff the Committees. These are arguments for saying that we cannot have enough Select Committees to view the whole of Government activity and that, having tested the matters of science and technology and agriculture, it is about time that one of the Select Committees gave way to the requirements of the House to investigate some other area of Government activity.

In my view, that is an attractive argument only superficially, because I believe that if the will of the House is made plain the facilities, servants and finance for a Select Committee system covering the whole of Government activity could be found. There is no difficulty when the Government, rightly in my view, say that a new Government Department should be established for, say, economic planning. How many civil servants and facilities did the Department of Economic Affairs require? How much Government expenditure and space did it require? Once the Government make up their mind that it is necessary to have such a Department, it comes into being. This happened with overseas development and economic affairs. It could happen with any other activity in which the Government wish to indulge.

I am not criticising. I believe it right that this should happen. But it is also right that Parliament should be able to obtain the facilities and civil servants necessary to ensure that its activities go on unhindered. It is not enough to say that at present we have only a certain number of Clerks and facilities. We should be able to will the means. The only difficulty in such circumstances would be whether the House would be prepared to do the work involved in staffing Select Committees.

I know some of the difficulties. Not all hon. Members are willing to serve on Committees. Not all hon. Members, with their other interests, are able to do so. But that is a weak argument when applied to the Select Committee on Agriculture, which started with 14 members and then the number was increased to 25. It was not increased to 25 because the Committee wanted it; the Committee was content and happy to have 14 members. As I understand it, the extra 11 members were not all people who wanted to sit on the Select Committee on Agriculture. Therefore, one can only ask why they were appointed.

If Select Committees are overstaffed, it might well be that we could not man a whole range of Select Committees to span all Government activities. But if they were smaller, if they comprised those who were genuinely interested in the Government activity concerned, we could manage to have a greater range of Select Committees. If this matter were being discussed on another day in the week when greater numbers of Members were present, the expression of the House would be that it wanted the Select Committee on Agriculture to continue, but not at the cost of not appointing other Select Committees.

I have spoken perhaps for longer than I intended, but I make no apology for that. This is a serious matter. It goes to the crux of what Parliamentary reform is all about. If we lose on this battle, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne conceded, I fear that we shall never gain the fundamental right that the House itself should decide the number of Committees, who serves on them and what their terms of reference shall be. In that event, the Executive will never be controlled by the House. It will always be able to set the terms of reference and decide who serves on the Committees. If matters are put forward in this way, inevitably somebody will say that the reality of politics is that one can only get what is possible.

Dr. John Dunwoody

My hon. Friend used the word "lose". I do not regard this as a battle to be won and lost. I do not think that there are victors and vanquished. The operation of these Specialist Committees is something that we have to work out with difficulty in the early stages. A compromise has been reached, and what we have today—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has made a speech. He cannot make a second one under the guise of an intervention. Perhaps he will complete his brief intervention.

Dr. Dunwoody

Today's Motion is of a different nature from the original one, and I think that it is a satisfactory compromise at this moment in time.

Mr. Lyon

I accept the implied rebuke in my hon. Friend's intervention. I wish that he and the rest of the Committee had been just a little more unco-operative in this matter and that the issue had been thrashed out in a full debate in a fuller House. The issue is worth such a debate.

I should like ultimately to see a situation in which a Committee of Selection was appointed by the House, and not from the usual channels, and which then chose those hon. Members who wished and were willing to serve on such Committees and that those Committees had all the staff and facilities at their disposal to do the job. Until we get that, this attempt at reform of the House will never be successful.

2.32 p.m.

Mr. Bert Hazell (Norfolk, North)

I think that most hon. Members, on both sides, would go a long way with what my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) has said. The action of members of the Select Committee over the past week in objecting to the previous Motion was largely motivated by the fact that we were genuinely of the opinion that it would not be possible, within the limited time available, to prepare the report that the House has the right to expect to be prepared in the light of all the evidence and the witnesses we had interviewed and seen during the whole of last Session.

It could, I suppose, be argued that we could have prepared a report of some kind by 31st December, but as members of the Select Committee we felt that we would not be doing justice to the breadth and width of the scope of the investigation which we had undertaken. We felt that to present a cock-eyed report to the House would not do either the Committee or the House in the eyes of the public any good and would be the death-knell of any future Select Committees.

We always understood that the appointment of a Select Committee was experimental in nature. I hope, however, that as a result of what has been achieved so far, and when the report in due course comes before the House, it will be clearly revealed that the experiment has been worthwhile. I support today's Motion. Although it brings to an end our special Select Committee on Agriculture, I hope that this will not be the last word of the appointment of a Select Committee for the industry, because the industry is a very wide one, with tremendous ramifications.

No one who has served on these Committees—and I have served on both of them—would ever suggest that they had reached the end of the road of investigation. There is a good deal that I would like to see further investigated. I would like to know something about N.A.A.S.—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must not go into the subject which he would like to see investigated. He may address himself to the change of date of termination of the Committee.

Mr. Hazell

I accept your Ruling Mr. Speaker. I simply wish to emphasise that there is a lot more to be investigated even concerning the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I therefore hope that when the Select Committee comes to an end further consideration might be given in due course to the appointment of another Select Committee to deal with the same Department.

I agree that when the membership of the Committee was increased from 14 to 25 it did not achieve any greater effectiveness in the work of the Select Committee. The fact remains that attendance at the Committee's meetings last Session was no greater with a membership of 25 than when the membership was only 14. It was, therefore, a waste of Members' time. Opportunities were lost for setting up another Select Committee to deal with other aspects of Departmental work by using a number of the members of the Committee who were so appointed, not with the support of the members of the Select Committee in the earlier Session, but rather against their wishes, because we felt that a Committee of 25 was unwieldy. In the result, the machinery was not improved by the additional numbers.

I would like to know whether the Chairman of the Select Committee has been consulted about the revised date as proposed in the Motion, and, if so, whether he agrees with it. Perhaps by the time we reach the end of February, it might be possible for us to have gathered up all the threads of discussion of the past Session and to present to the House a report which, I believe, will commend the appointment of further Select Committees.

2.38 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) is a distinguished Yorkshire lawyer and, like a Yorkshire Hampden, he has fought for the liberties of the House. He has made a powerful forensic case and I agree 90 per cent. with him.

I should like to say a word about the changed date. I support the Motion. Since the Chairman of the Committee is not present, I speak as Chairman of the Fisheries Sub-Committee of the main Committee. I will say simply this about attendance at the main Committee. When criticising and castigating the total of 25, my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) might bear in mind that there are two powerful Sub-Committees—Horticulture and Fisheries—and that we meet on Wednesday mornings. There is no doubt that we need a larger total on the main Committee to hive off, so to speak, people like ourselves to do this extremely important work. Kind words have been said about our findings.

Earlier this morning, we spoke about this very matter on the Sea Fisheries Bill. Unwittingly, the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), if I may speak for him, and myself, as members of the Committee, complained about this matter, not having done our homework, not having looked at the Motion and seen the changed date.

I thank my right hon. Friend for changing the date, because it enables us in the Fisheries Sub-Committee to do the job, which is unfinished, of looking at the work of the White Fish Authority. I thank my right hon. Friend for giving us the additional time. I know the wide-ranging scale of debate that is possible, but I do not wish to pursue that. I believe that we can do our job in the additional time that we have been given in looking at the work of the White Fish Authority.

2.40 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

This has been an extremely interesting debate. I am sorry that I was not here when the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall) made his remarks. Unfortunately, he is not now here. But may I say that I have never regarded Friday as an inconvenient day. After all, this is a normal Parliamentary day and I can remember many occasions when we have had major debates on Fridays.

Sir John Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

Would the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his Government draw a distinction between Resolutions and Motions carried by this House on a Friday and those carried on other days, classing the former as second-rate?

Mr. Peart

The hon. Member must realise that the Motion before us, although the date has been altered, was tabled in principle earlier. Friday is a Parliamentary day and I deplore this habit of hon. Members, in all parts of the House, to think otherwise. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt) is a distinguished Parliamentarian and I am sure he would agree with me.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. What I was trying to say was that this Government have remarked that a Motion carried on a Friday is "only a Friday Motion" and therefore has less validity than a Motion carried on any other day.

Mr. Peart

I would never accept that Friday is unimportant. I take the view that this is a normal Parliamentary day. The First Secretary has already made a very important statement today. I have been in this House ever since 1945, and I can remember many great debates that we have had on a Friday. This is right and proper, and the public takes note of it. Today the issue raised is an important one and the arguments are fundamental.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) made an interesting speech with which I have great sympathy. I am a reformer, even if this is sometimes forgotten. It was I, more than any other Minister who advocated Select Committees. I would recommend to him an extremely stimulating article that I wrote on this, and other issues, in 1945. I have always believed that there should be opportunities to check the Executive. This is the great strength of our constitution. It is our unwritten practice which enables an hon. Member to convey to the Executive the views of those whom he represents. I have always thought that we should create this kind of Committee, and I am on record when I was a shadow Minister as saying that. I hate the word "shadow" in this context. I see the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) here. I am not sure whether he is a shadow Minister of Agriculture or of the Scottish Department, but he is a distinguished Member of this House too.

He will remember a major agricultural debate when one of my predecessors made an important announcement about the setting up of a Meat Commission, relating to the Verdon-Smith Committee. I then advocated the setting up of a Select Committee of the type that we now have. I have always believed in such committees, and I am now reaffirming my faith. I accept my hon. Friend's arguments about the check on the Executive. But I hope it will not be overlooked that I was the first Departmental Minister to give evidence before a Specialist Committee. I rather liked the experience. If one reads my replies carefully when I was cross-questioned by colleagues it will be seen that I felt it was good for me to explain policy and good for them to ask about it. I had an agreeable discussion with the Committee.

Mr. Wall

And the Minister answered very well.

Mr. Peart

That is very kind and generous. So often Ministers and Leaders of the House are criticised for not doing so well. I think I agree that I was a good Minister.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am enjoying this, but we must get to the Motion.

Mr. Peart

It is rather nice to have an enjoyable debate on a Friday. The Select Committee was not only good for me and hon. Members, but it was good for the staff of my Department. It is good that civil servants should appear before such a Committee and be examined. It leads to a constructive approach. I can assure my hon. Friend that I believe in this. There are certainly problems of staff. He argued earlier that we should have fewer hon. Members on the Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) has done tremendous work on the Sub-Committee and it is right that he should complete this work.

It will have an important effect on a great industry. My hon. Friend has proved the value of his work and is anxious that his report should be concluded. I do not disagree with that, but I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for York has sought to criticise the Motion.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

I hesitate to criticise my right hon. Friend, whose work in this sphere I duly acknowledge. All that I say is that when he was like me he had the same feelings. Now he is in the position to influence matters, would he not agree that it is right that this Committee, having justified itself, should continue permanently?

Mr. Peart

I have always been consistent, in Opposition or in Government, but my hon. Friend must recognise that when this was announced by the then Leader of the House he stressed that it would be for an experimental period. I was involved as a Minister in the Department of Agriculture and I always accepted this. We are in no way saying that this experimental period has not been successful simply because we say that agriculture must soon give way to something else. I am looking at this and will probably have to make a statement to the House soon on those sections of political activity pursued by Departments that should be examined.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It will help the Official Reporters if the Leader of the House addresses the Chair.

Mr. Peart

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that I always address the Chair. I was merely turning towards some of my hon. Friends who have raised important questions.

Mr. Hazell

When is the experimental period likely to end and when is something of a more permanent nature likely to be presented to the House?

Mr. Peart

I cannot be precise. The Committee, together with the Committee dealing with science and technology, was one of the first in the experiment. We now have the Committee on Education. I might like to try some other experiments, without committing myself. The House will then have to decide whether to have permanently the Committees which we are discussing.

These are important issues. Some of my colleagues do not agree that it is right to have this examination by Committees. Others feel that it is right. There is a difference between our constitution and the American constitution. The Americans lay great stress on these Committees which can cross-examine Ministers, but we are in a different position because here Ministers can be questioned in the House and are linked with Parliament. But these are all issues which we must settle as we go along. Let us not denigrate an experiment which has been successful, but give me an opportunity to look at it over a longer period.

I hope that my hon. Friends will be assured that I am sympathetic towards their point of view. Personally, I believe in the system. The experiment must be continued, and it may well be that we shall have to choose other subjects and other Departments. I hope that the Motion will be approved.

Question put and agreed to.