§ 4.1 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)
I beg to move.That this House takes note of the Green Paper on Select Committees of the House of Commons (Command Paper No. 4507).The purpose of the debate is to give hon. Members on both sides of the House a chance to express their views on the Green Paper which the Government have submitted on the future of Select Committees. It would, therefore, be a waste of time for me to go again over the ground covered in the Green Paper. Instead, I want to tell the House of the reasoning which led to the conclusions. This I shall do briefly. If I have the permission of the House, and if I catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, I will at the end of the debate seek to reply to the various points made.
As I said during the debate on the Address in July, I wanted to have time during the recess to consider the Reports of the Select Committee on Procedure and to review the whole problem of select specialist committees. I undertook then to present my conclusions to the House in a Green Paper for its consideration. I was anxious to follow this procedure because I hoped thereby to find an acceptable arrangement which would last for some time. I also felt that a new Parliament should take stock of the considerable developments in our Select Committee system which had taken place under my predecessors the right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) and the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart). I fully recognise the value to this House of what they did, which is admirably set out in the book published today by the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris). I cannot claim to have had time to do more than look quickly at it since he was kind enough to let me have a copy, but I realise that it is a valuable document because it sets out what happened during the last Parliament.
When I read the various Select Committee on Procedure Reports and the debates in this House, I became convinced of the paramount importance of 619 finding the right balance between what can be the conflicting interests of the Chamber and the Select Committees. On the one hand, I am absolutely certain that the House of Commons Chamber must remain the centre of Parliament and the main battleground of political controversy. On the other hand, I am equally certain that a sound Select Committee system is vital to the detailed probing and criticism of the executive upon which both successful Parliamentary democracy and good government depend. The Select Committee system can also be valuable to the debates in the House of Commons Chamber.
The House has increasingly come to accept this broad division between political controversy in the Chamber and non-controversy in the party sense in Select Committees. This has enabled Parliament to extend and develop its functions in accordance with modern needs, and I am sure that the continuing acceptance of the distinction is necessary as the basis of a sound Select Committee system.
Equally, the House is doing itself a disservice if, because of lack of politically controversial matter in Committee Reports or for any other reason, the debates on the Floor of the House get a somewhat poor and thin hearing. This has all too often happened in the past. It can only be a devaluation of the Select Committee idea both in the eyes of the public and of Parliament. I hope that the House will think of this in the future.
The question of balance between the Chamber and the Committee is, as I have said, a crucial one. If too many hon. Members are engaged on Select Committee work, the Chamber is denuded and hon. Members cannot meet all the claims on their time, with the result that the Select Committees find difficulty in maintaining their quorums and the whole work of Parliament suffers.
It was with the importance of keeping the right balance in mind that I considered the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure concerning a major Select Committee on Expenditure. I concluded that it would not be possible to have the sort of expenditure committee envisaged and, at the same time, to keep such Select Committees as those on 620 Nationalised Industries, Science and Technology, Race Relations and Scottish Affairs. I received representations both from hon. Members and from people outside the House on the value of these Committees. I was particularly impressed by those from outside bodies, which said that they valued the contact with Parliament which the Select Committees provided.
I concluded, therefore, that they should be retained and that, as a result, a major Select Committee on Expenditure with a comprehensive set of functional subcommittees was not a feasible proposition. Accordingly, the Green Paper suggests that alongside the Select Committees which I have mentioned there should be a more modest form of Select Committee on Expenditure. This, I suggest, might have about 45 members, although I am not wedded to that or any precise figure. It would have a wider rôle than the old Estimates Committee, and would bring under examination the projects of public expenditure made available to the House. It would be free to consider the policies behind the figures and, therefore, might sometimes wish to examine Ministers on them.
I also promised in July that I would ensure that the uncompleted work of the old specialist committees would not be lost to the House. If agreed to by the House today and set up, the new Select Committee on Expenditure is likely to have a sub-committee on overseas aid, which is essentially a matter of expenditure, but that decision is for the Committee and not for me.
Therefore, in order fully to keep my promise, I propose the establishment of a Committee on Overseas Aid for one Session in order to complete the unfinished work of the old Specialist Committee on Overseas Aid. The Select Committee on Education and Science was engaged in a report on teacher training. As the Government have undertaken to set up an inquiry into teacher training, it seems only sensible to give all the evidence taken by the Specialist Committee to this new inquiry.
The Green Paper recognises the value of the unofficial Committee of Chairmen which operated in the last Parliament and which has shown that it can deal so successfully with such questions 621 as overlapping, overseas visits and staffing.
The Green Paper does not, of course, affect either the Public Accounts Committee or the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, which have rather different functions from the Committees I have been discussing. The Public Accounts Committee has already been set up and the Select Committee will be appointed shortly.
These, then, are the main proposals in the Green Paper. If the House sees fit to approve them, there will be an opportunity to watch the Expenditure Committee and the other Specialist Committees operating side by side over the life of this Parliament and to gain experience from the arrangement. I suggest that this will provide an opportunity for evolutionary developments within what I hope will be a reasonably stable framework. I commend the proposals to the House and look forward to a searching and open debate upon them.
§ Mr. Speaker
I remind the House that many right hon. and hon. Members, many of them with expert knowledge, wish to speak in the debate. Brief speeches will help.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Fred Peart (Workington)
I congratulate the Leader of the House on introducing so early this Green Paper on Select Committees. He has given his reasons and I think that the course he has suggested is admirable in that he will listen to the debate, take note of the views expressed and reply at the end.
This is not today a party issue and no doubt the Chamber is not so full as it is on other issues. Nevertheless, this is a very important matter because it affects the work and quality of Parliament and, therefore, in the end concerns the public. No doubt we will not regard this as a party issue in any way. In the debate there will be varying views, but in the end, of course, the Government will have to decide. Inevitably, there will have to be Motions—no doubt on the lines of the broad proposals contained in the Green Paper. I am glad that we are debating it in this spirit.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. Harold Wilson), as 622 Prime Minister, spoke about Select Committees in 1966, he made the following statement:I believe the time has now come when we might consider an experiment to extend this system over a wider field of public administration. Accordingly, the Government will enter into discussions through the usual channels with the two Opposition parties on the suggestion of establishing one or two new Parliamentary Committees to concern themselves with administration in the sphere of certain Departments whose usual operations are not only of national concern but in many cases are of intensely human concern."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st April, 1966; Vol. 727, c. 76.]Later that year, the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), when moving the Motions for the appointment of Specialist Committees on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and on Science and Technology spoke of:a cautious advance in the revival of continuous Parliamentary control of the Executive".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1966; Vol. 738, c. 494.]and emphasised that this was a Sessional experiment.
Paragraph 2 and subsequent paragraphs of the Green Paper contain a concise history of the development of this experiment. I want first to express my personal position on this matter, and in doing so I am not speaking for all my colleagues, for there will be different views.
I have always believed in the development of the Specialist Committee. Immediately after the war, when I first came to the House, I pleaded in articles and speeches for this new development. In my first speech on the Opposition Front Bench as spokesman on agriculture, I asked for a special committee for agriculture, where hon. Members could question Ministers, and in the Committee they could meet leaders of the industry and other organisations. I have always adhered to that view.
I was glad when we in the Labour Government moved towards this experiment and when my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East, as Leader of the House, selected agriculture as one of the Departments concerned. I gave evidence to that Select Committee on Agriculture. In view of what happened then and the articles and controversies we had about the Committee, I assure some of my colleagues and others outside that 623 there was no attempt on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture to frustrate the work of the Committee. Indeed, I instructed my officials to give every help and co-operation, and this they did. There were individuals, politicians and writers, who said that I had packed the Committee with individuals who represented certain Common Market attitudes. That was nonsense.
When the Select Committee on Agriculture came to an end, during my period as Leader of the House, in February, 1969, we established a new committee to consider the activities of the Department of Education and Science and Scottish education. In November, 1968, we appointed a new Specialist Committee to consider the operation of the Race Relations Act and the admission of immigrants. Also in February, 1969, we set up a new committee to consider Scottish affairs, which was finally followed by a committee, established in April, 1969, to consider the activities of the Ministry of Overseas Development. In addition to this, we extend the terms of reference of that very important and successful Committee, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. I am prepared to admit that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) and his colleague, Colonel Lancaster, then the Member for South Fylde did some successful prodding. Despite the gloomy forecasts of some writers and academics considerable; progress was made during that period with the development of the Committee system. I note that in a very good article in The Times today, Mr. David Wood, the distinguished Lobby Correspondent of The Times, reviewing the excellent book, published today, by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris), says of this period:Taking stock now, it can be seen that between 1966–70 there occurred a more radical advance in parliamentary scrutiny of what Whitehall is up to than most politicians and outside observers recognised at the time.My aim as the then Leader of the House was that we should come to a decision, but the election intervened. I therefore welcome what the Leader of the House has done. He presented clearly his point of view and has given us positive proposals. To be able to achieve a decision we must, of course, have long 624 consultations. He has mentioned his own. I had a long series of official consultations with numerous chairmen of committees and many informative discussions with a variety of parliamentarians and academics outside the House.
Then we inevitably have to consider the proposals of the Select Committee on Procedure in its Report in July 1969, which is mentioned in the Green Paper. I shall not weary the House with details of that Report. Hon. Members have debated them. The Government of the day did not come to any conclusions, and we must make decisions now. The proposals included the concept of a special Expenditure Committee and a series of sub-committees covering industry, power, trade, agriculture, education, housing, law, order, defence and external matters. These were important proposals supported by many distiguished parliamentarians, including the late Iain Macleod. Indeed, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) blessed the Report in a speech during a debate in which I participated. Many hon. Members will no doubt speak today in support of the Select Committee's recommendations.
The proposals represent an advance, but I can see difficulties, and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has not accepted the proposals. I believe that his own are an advance. Some people say that they are a compromise. Some have argued that he has gone backward. I do not accept that. I do not mind if hon. Members accuse me of collusion with the right hon. Gentleman on the matter. Even though my own positive proposals, which I hope I would have achieved, may go a little further, I believe that the proposals in the Green Paper are better for the House than the recommendations of the Select Committee on Procedure.
Today we have positive proposals as a basis for discussion. The book of my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe has been mentioned. I hope that hon. Members will carefully read this symposium, a very important series of essays by seven Members of different political views. Some had the distinction of being chairmen of their committees, while others played an active part as lay members. It is a book well worth reading. I trust that many of my colleagues who 625 are uncertain about the matter will read it very carefully before making up their minds.
§ Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Southall)
I looked up "symposium" because of the publication of the book today and found that as well as meaning a collection of essays it can also mean a Greek booze-up.
§ Mr. Peart
I suggested to my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe that he should get his publishers to throw a cocktail party for hon. Members, but they have not responded yet.
We must now assess the position, and ask ourselves these questions, Has the experiment which we conducted succeeded? Have Specialist Committees been a success? Has Parliament as a whole benefited? Are Members now in a better position to check the Executive? Do the Government and individual Members really take note of the recommendations and findings of the committees? Has policy been influenced? Have the committees really influenced the Executive? Have the committees impaired activity on the Floor of the House? That is extremely important from the point of view of Parliament, and it was stressed by the Leader of the House. Do the activities of members in Select Committee affect their activities on the Floor of the House? Can they become too preoccupied in minutiae and detail? These are important matters.
Why have so few reports been debated in the House? There were altogether 47, but only 10 were debated. I have a responsibility here, because I resisted giving time. Whatever system we operate, the Leader of the House will inevitably still have that difficulty. Can we afford the time?
But I know that the reports, even though they have not been debated, are read carefully by Departments and civil servants, and taken note of. I assure hon. Members, from my experience as a Departmental Minister, that they have 626 an effect and are taken note of, even though they are not always debated on the Floor of the House.
We must also ask ourselves technical questions about the services of the committees. Have they been adequate? Have they had adequate staff, adequate quality of staff, adequate research facilities? Will the Select Committee system therefore in the end mean a heavy drain on hard-pressed resources which we need in the House?
I tried to examine the matter asking myself all those questions, and I came to the conclusion that despite all the difficulties the experiment has been a success. I think that we can unhesitatingly say that it has succeeded. I do take the classical view that as the power of the Executive increases with modern government, so the power of Parliament to scrutinise and check the Executive should also increase. That was the view held as far back as 1918 in the Haldane Report on the Machinery of Government, which said:… any improvement in the organisation of the Departments of State which was so marked as substantially to increase their efficiency should have as its correlative an increase in the power of the Legislature as a check upon the acts and the proposals of the executive.I believe that that is true, and we must face up to it.
Over the past five or six years, and since the recent election, we have seen an influx of new Members of all parties, Members with great talents and skills. Even though they may not hold executive positions, they can use those talents and abilities effectively and constructively not just on the Floor of the House but in a Committee system. With the growing complexity of the machinery of government, mirroring inevitably a rapidly developing and varied technological society, we must evolve new procedures and practices.
We shall have to be pragmatic. I discovered this as Leader of the House. I remember my first baptism in that position, in my second week, I think, when I was challenged about the Standing Committee experiment with the Finance Bill going upstairs. I came to the conclusion that we could not be dogmatic, even though I was always a passionate supporter of doing such a 627 thing. In the end a compromise was achieved, and I believe that it was right, with the minutiae sent upstairs to Standing Committee and the main issues debated on the Floor of the House. The same approach applies to Select Committees. That is the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar in his essays in the book which I have quoted, and he derives this view from experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.
A measured, pragmatic approach suits our political system, which is not hidebound by a written Constitution. Occasionally some of our colleagues become rather impatient and occasionally point to developments of the committee system on the Continent and in the United States. They forget that the systems there are quite different. After all, our Ministers are in the Legislature and responsible to Parliament. We could revive all the old arguments of separation of powers, and go back to some of the problems stated by a Montesquieu in his classic work, "L'Esprit des Lois". But we have not time for that today. This issue is important and is crucial to our parliamentary well-being.
There is no evidence that the existence of these Select Committees has harmed debate on the Floor of the House. On the contrary, in this period, when we have had the experiment of Select Committees, we have had vigorous controversy. I think of the problems I had to face over the House of Lords Reform Bill. My goodness, what a unique and bizarre alliance was that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), who has now been promoted, and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). There the Executive had to take note, and, indeed, the Executive lost. I remember the slipping of parliamentary time. I remember also how we had to retreat on the ending of morning sittings.
I remember, too, the point that has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson), who I thought intended to make a contribution today. In a publicised statement, he talks about the effect of back benchers on the Executive in relation to the Industrial Relations Bill. I could continue. Thus, the facts are simply that in this 628 Chamber our rank and file colleagues have exerted a great influence. I think this is right.
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
The right hon. Gentleman has just illustrated very well his pragmatic approach to his running of this House as Leader. Before he comes to his peroration, I wonder if he would give us the benefit of his great experience in the extremely important office of Leader of the House on this point. Would it be a good idea to set up a Select Committee to watch currently the Common Market negotiations? As my right hon. Friend said in the course of the Business Questions, we are the representatives of the people of the country, and the people want the current negotiations examined and a weekly or fortnightly report published, as it were. Would he agree that that is a pragmatic approach?
§ Mr. Peart
The hon. Gentleman has had no difficulty in probing Ministers at Question Time. He has had great success. On a question like that, I think the Floor of the House is the place where Ministers should justify their policies. I should not like to see this great issue of entry into Europe settled somewhere in a Select Committee. It may well be examined there on the details. I believe that question should be on the Floor of the House. I do not think I can go beyond that.
Quite rightly, hon. Gentlemen may ask me what I would do and what are my proposals. I broadly support the approach the right hon. Gentleman has made in relation to the Estimates Committee. He will change it, give it another name. I should have advocated too a modest enlargement, and I believe also that its terms of reference would have to be reformed. I should also have suggested the retention of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. The right hon. Gentleman has accepted this. I also believe that the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration should continue. It is also right to continue with the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, until the Commission on the Constitution has reported. When I considered this, I thought about a Select Committee for affairs in the Northern Region or affairs in East Anglia, but I thought it right to start with Scotland as there is a Scottish Department. I 629 believe now we should continue with this Select Committee and await the Commission on the Constitution.
My hon. Friends may disagree, but I also believe that a Select Committee on Science and Technology should be extended to cover education, science and technology. This would mean the winding up of the Committee for Science and Education.
I should not abandon the Overseas Aid Committee. I would let it complete its task for two further Sessions. I go further than the Leader of the House when I suggest the subject would become part of the remit of a Specialist Select Committee on overseas affairs.
I should also propose three new Specialist Committees, including one on defence. After all, we must remember that in the last Parliament over 100 Members, of all parties, had a Motion on this and pressed me about it. There is strong feeling on it. I, too, should have a Specialist Committee on the social services and a Specialist Committee on trade and industry.
I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman has said in his Green Paper about a Special Committee of both Houses to look into matters such as law reform. This should be considered. I once thought in terms of a pre-legislation committee. Perhaps we could have a Joint Committee of both Houses to do that sort of task. That would in no way conflict with what has been said. Such proposals go further than those in the Green Paper, though our ultimate aim is to improve the quality of parliamentary activity and practice.
Reform of parliamentary procedure is inevitable. The question is one of timing and the rate of change.
It is all very well to talk about reform, but sometimes we should think clearly and remember what parliamentary government is and what it means. Its virtue has been that it has worked, and that we have witnessed long periods of relatively stable government. I want parliamentary controversy, but I also want good government and strong government. The two can be married. After all, we have had a long history of Parliamentary activity. I look back at the Protestation of the Commons in 1631, where it states: 630The liberties, franchise, privileges, and jurisdictions of Parliament are the ancient and undoubted birth-right and inheritance of the people of England.That still holds today. Critics there will be. There are those who may be cynical about Parliament and its contribution, who still mouth the acid comments of the historian Froude, that the House of Commons was… 600 talking asses sent to make laws and to administer the concern of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.Perhaps today even though we have no Empire some individuals would still think so. Our Parliament, and the House of Commons, has been the tool of monarchs, oligarchs and democrats, but with all its faults, is still one of the greatest democratic political assemblies in the world. We must keep it so. But we can only do so if we progress with sensible and imaginative change.
§ 4.37 p.m.
§ Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)
The whole House will associate itself with the very eloquent closing words of the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart). As I was the chairman of the group referred to in paragraph 22 of the Green Paper, in the previous Parliament, I take this opportunity to thank him for his helpfulness and co-operation when he was Leader of the House in doing all that he could, within the physical limitations, to help us in the working of the Select Committee system.
Today the House is having what is known in certain circles as a day of thought. I must declare a kind of interest in that I was a witness before the Select Committee on Procedure. I was a witness who endeavoured to restrain that Committee from going quite as far as it did, and who urged it to take rather more the line which, I am delighted to say, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has taken in the Green Paper.
As one would expect of the late captain of the Royal and Ancient, my right hon. Friend has gone pretty well straight down the middle of the fairway and has avoided all but perhaps one or two of the bunkers. I think he is absolutely right to leave as they are the Public Accounts Committee, about which I will say nothing further since the House will be debating its report on Monday, and 631 the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries is working extremely well. I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), but I think the House will agree that he has been an admirable chairman of the Committee.
That Committee does a job which no one else can do. It has always seemed to me to be the weakness of the Morrisonian system of State corporations, originating in the 1940s, that there are too few people who can get at them. Ministers disclaim interference with day-to-day administration. There are no shareholders in annual general meeting. The only people who can examine the heads of these industries are the members of that Select Committee. Were it not for the Select Committee, there still could be applied to these industries the comment which was applied to them some years ago:Having neither souls to be saved nor bottoms to be kicked, they were immune from the sanctions of decent conduct.The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries fills that gap.
Having said that, I think that my right hon. Friend is right to cut back on the Specialist Committees. Here, I agree with my right hon. Friend rather than with the right hon. Member for Workington. It is better that we concentrate on the strengthening as well as the more appropriate re-naming of what used to be known as the Estimates Committee. I am sure that that is the right approach. However I would urge upon my right hon. Friend that if it is to work effectively there are certain basic requirements which must be fulfilled.
The first is this, and I hope that the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) will neither think this offensive nor disagree with me. In previous Parliaments, the Estimates Committee felt its limitations. If the proposed committee is to work better, it must be equipped with an adequate staff. My own experience on the Public Accounts Committee over a number of years is that the efficient working of such a committee is dependent on the provision of an adequate and substantial staff. The Public Accounts Committee has had the advantage of the help and co-operation first 632 of the Comptroller and Auditor General, an official of the highest status and, in recent years, of the highest quality and ability, and a staff of very nearly 500 people in the Exchequer and Audit Department working inside the Whitehall Departments throughout the year. If the Public Accounts Committee achieved any measure of success, it was due almost entirely to the fact that the necessary research work, the looking at the books, was done in advance for the Committee regularly throughout the year.
If the new committee is to work efficiently, this is not just a question of giving it one or two extra clerks on the establishment of the department of the learned Clerk of the House. It involves equipping it with a real investigatory staff of its own. We are kidding ourselves if we think that an assembly of very busy Members of this House with, as we know, many other commitments and obligations, sitting perhaps twice a week for a couple of hours can possibly get at what is referred to in the Green Paper as… the reasons and policies behind the figures …unless there is a staff who can get at and work on the books and accounts of the Departments of State. They will be examining Permanent Secretaries and senior officials who have all the apparatus of Whitehall behind them in coming before the committee. I recall in my Ministerial days more than once being asked not to send for my Permanent Secretary because he was briefing himself for his annual appearance before the Public Accounts Committee. It was known facetiously in one Department as "the P.U.S.'s rutting season".
A Permanent Secretary has the whole briefing of a great Department of State. How can the ablest of Members of Parliament hope to extract from the representative of a great Department of State the facts which such a committee wishes to discover and which perhaps the Department does not want to disclose, unless the committee has some of the briefing advantages bestowed so lavishly on the witnesses appearing before it?
If this committee is to be set up, I hope that my right hon. Friend will do it properly and that it will be well-equipped with a proper staff. If it is not, the time 633 of a great many Members of Parliament will be used without getting full value for it. It will tend to create a situation in which members of the committee will become disillusioned and will be inclined to attend less frequently. If the committee is well-equipped with the facts and the details on which its examination of witnesses can be based, its members will be encouraged to attend and make use of the material available to them.
There are certain other more modest material requirements. I am sure that the chairman of such a committee must be given proper clerical assistance. Some hon. Members are very good filing clerks. Others are less good. A mass of material is involved, some of it sensitive and with security implications. The chairman requires to be so equipped, and the chairmen of sub-committees must be given their own rooms and privacy in which to do their jobs. Those are the material requirements, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will tell us what progress he has been able to make in these respects.
There are only two other points as to the best way in which these committees can work. I am sure that they work best when they are given fairly precise and clear-cut points to investigate, where their chairmen can restrict them to the issues with which they are concerned, where they do not fall into the temptation to pursue hares all over the lanscape but have definite points on which to concentrate, specific definite issues, backed up by proper research.
Secondly, I think that Select Committees do much their best work when they are not involved in matters of direct party political controversy. I confess that I sense possible dangers in this new committee. We are told in the Green Paper that it is to deal not only with the spending, the figures, but with the policies behind the figures. As we recall from last week, how we allot public resources and spend the national product is the very stuff of party politics. It would be a great pity if a committee of this kind ever got itself into the position of looking at these matters on party lines. It is my happiest memory of my six years' service on the Public Accounts Committee that I do not recall the Committee once taking a decision on party lines. When 634 we were divided, the parties were hopelessly intermingled.
If the Select Committee is to examine Ministers about policies, it may well get into dangerously deep water. If it is to ask why a certain amount is spent on defence which some Members feel should be spent on education and others feel should be spent on health, there is a danger of the controversies which rightly divide us on the Floor of the House infecting the Committee room and debilitating the work of the Committee.
I ventured to put that view to the Select Committee on Procedure, and I thought it worth repeating to this House. There are dangers to the effective working of the proposed committee. It will be on firm ground when, accepting an objective, it investigates whether that objective is being achieved economically and efficiently or whether money is being wasted in its pursuit. If it then proceeds to consider whether it is an objective which is defensible—an obvious example is whether we should spend money maintaining forces in the Far East—the committee will become very much less useful.
So I welcome these proposals. Generally, I think, they represent a fair compromise between the old-fashioned type of Select Committees and the Specialist Committees set up in recent years, and a fair balance between the claims of this Chamber and of the probing work of Select Committees. I think they are reasonable and that they can be worked, but if I may risk incurring your displeasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by a repetition, which I hope will not be tedious, they will work really well only if they are given the physical tools and the resources to do the job and if they can be so managed that they do not reproduce in miniature the party controversies of this Chamber but direct themselves to the practical, factual examination of hard and ascertainable facts.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Bottomley (Middlesbrough, East)
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) referred to the work of the Leader of the House in presenting this document in golfing terms. If I may add one comment, I think the Paper is just pitched short—
§ Mr. Bottomley
—but that does not prevent me from saying to the right hon. Gentleman and to his two predecessors that they deserve the thanks of those of us who want to see Select Committee procedure further developed.
Of course, Select Committee procedure is nothing new. Parliament long ago saw the wisdom of having such committees to examine and scrutinise the acts of the Executive, but we have to recognise that the problems which face the community as a whole today are much more complicated, and this indeed makes the work of Ministers much harder. The problems which they have to face today are not understood by the public at large, and this stresses, I think, the need for an improved machinery to enable people to understand just what Governments do on their behalf. The problems of the day call for greater co-operation and understanding between Government Departments and other public and private bodies and organisations.
The increasing complexity of the work of the Government and the extensions of their powers have helped to highlight the inadequacy of the traditional concept of Parliamentary control. No longer can the House of Commons by Questions and debates or Motions and Bills expect to exercise an effective check on all major decisions and acts of government. I am not suggesting that because of this there should be a rigid control of the Executive. Rigid control on the actions of the Executive would, in my opinion, make it very difficult to carry out effective government; it would indeed frustrate Government action, and we should get inefficiency. I believe, however, that with the growth of the powers of the Executive there should be given opportunities for Parliament to match them with techniques for questioning continuously the Executive's use of power so as to avoid the dangers of government behind closed doors, and to seek more and better occasions of ensuring that Ministers and civil servants justify their policies and their decisions and their actions.
We should not forget that Members of Parliament have something more to do than to inform themselves about the 636 working of the Executive or to seek to influence Ministers. Parliamentary opinion must be related to public criticism and opinion. It was Lloyd George himself who saidParliament must be the sounding board of public opinion.Parliament must speak directly for the people and to the people. The House of Commons must openly communicate public anxieties, criticisms and preferences to the Government. It must also seek to clarify for the electors the decisions and acts of the Government, and also it must see that the policies and actions of the Opposition are, likewise, put forward to the people so that they can see what an alternative Government would seek to do.
My experience as Chairman of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration has taught me that the Committee machinery is a very valuable means of improving contact between Ministers and civil servants and groups and individuals in the community. They are an essential method of improving contact between Government Departments and Parliament. They provide an opportunity for information and ideas to flow in both directions. We have on a Select Committee to be able to see that all of us participate on matters upon which the Government have to take decisions. We want to afford an opportunity also for other Members of Parliament, as a result of that kind of investigation and work, to do the same. There is also an opportunity provided for people outside Parliament to put their views to representatives and responsible Members of Parliament. The Select Committees have provided means of eliciting information and presenting it both to the public and to Parliament.
All Members of Parliament must be concerned with public expenditure; no one—in his right sense, of course—would suggest otherwise; we do not want waste of money and we do not want inefficiency; but, for my part, I do not think that looking at expenditure alone is the sole function of Parliament. I think that the service we get for the money we spend is very important.
Not only do we have to be concerned with service and keeping down taxes, but I think we should be concerned with the 637 use of public power; the use of power can also vitally affect the lives of ordinary people. In the Departments where I have had the privilege of serving as a Minister in the past, very often decisions which had to be taken, vital decisions affecting the public, had little to do with public expenditure at all. It is for this reason that I think there is need for Select Committees which will provide Parliamentary scrutiny of very important matters which, as I have said, may have little to do with public expenditure. I am very glad that the Leader of the House has recognised this and has agreed to the establishment of these Specialist Committees, and he is to be congratulated on taking this decision against the advice of the Committee which was established to go into the question of procedure in the House.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
I think that probably the right hon. Gentleman has not read the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure. It made no recommendation adverse to the setting up of Specialist Committees. It was not in its remit to do so.
§ Mr. Bottomley
The right hon. Gentleman is correct in what he has said in that respect, but he will be aware that there were many members of the Committee who did not share that point of view, and at one time it was my impression that they were in the majority, but if I am wrong I will accept correction from the right hon. Gentleman.
I was saying that committee work can be important even though it is not concerned with public expenditure. There can be great value in keeping an eye on how legislation works out in practice as well as looking at expenditure or the use of power. The Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration, for example, went out to local authority areas, and, as a result of going out to those areas, we were able to see how legislation passed in this House affected the local authorities. At one time local authorities were anxious; they thought that we were going to interfere with their work; but I can assure hon. and right hon. Members that those local authorities whose areas we visited afterwards agreed that the work of the Select Committee was beneficial to them, because they also had an opportunity of looking at things in a fresh light, and it enabled them to bring to 638 M.P.s more directly problems which they had to face as a result of legislation which was passed in this House. We should also spend more time looking at the results of legislation in the light of experience.
I think I speak for all members of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration when I say that we learned much. We were better equipped to take part in debates in the House of Commons, public debate and even debate outside this country. A short time ago I had the opportunity of going with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to Australia where the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) and I took part in a debate on race relations. The hon. Lady made a contribution which earned I will not say the support of all but the respect of delegates from all over the Commonwealth. If I may be forgiven for saying so, I made a contribution in my way, and I believe the British contribution as a whole set a standard to which many people in subsequent debates paid tribute. The hon. Member for Edgbaston and I would have been unable to make this contribution had it not been for the investigation of the Select Committee which enabled us to get at the facts, study the problem objectively and speak on it authoritatively. Our work on the Committee and the contacts we made enabled us to rethink the problem and to compel others to do so.
The right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames has said adequately what I would like to have said about staffing, and to save time I strongly underline what he said. The proposition which I would put to the Leader of the House is not only that the Chairman of a Select Committee should have the kind of assistance that has been suggested, but that he should have some remuneration to make sure that he is completely removed from executive influence. I am not saying that he should be on a par with a Minister, but he should be given an opportunity to exercise authority on behalf of the House. Secondly, I think that the Chairman of a Select Committee and the members of it should be selected by the House of Commons on a party basis numerically but not in such a way that it might be thought that there was patronage by the Whips selecting who should 639 and who should not serve on a committee. With those propositions, I again thank the Leader of the House for the way in which he introduced the report and for his comments on it.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)
I was recently fortunate enough at the same time to serve on two Select Committees. One was a departmental committee dealing with the Ministry of Overseas Development and the other was a subject committee dealing with race relations and immigration. As a result of that experience, which, with the reluctant help of my then Chief Whip, I brought upon myself, I am in agreement with his main proposals for a new pattern of Select Committees as set out in the Green Paper. In particular, if most members of Select Committees are to continue to play an active rôle in the Chamber and in Standing Committees, as they should do, the number of Select Committees must be limited and their membership must be smaller.
I am glad that a committee is to be set up on overseas aid to analyse the evidence collected and to report its conclusions to the House. Otherwise, the results of much hard work and considerable public expense will run to waste. When this work has been completed, I hope that it will not be too long before a Select Committee on Public Expenditure appoints a sub-committee to examine further this whole subject. This expenditure lies in a comparatively new and experimental field, involving delicate Government-to-Government relations. Moreover, there is widespread and continuing public controversy about overseas aid, and Britain is not alone in this. The subject is hotly debated, not only in other countries which provide aid but also in countries which receive it. I hope that the new form of scrutiny proposed in the Green Paper will be used to help to make known to Parliament and the public what our aid policy seeks to achieve and its main successes and failures and to assess how the management of our aid programme might be improved. It could also suggest a new order of priorities.
Our help to the third world can be most useful if it is based firmly on common interest both in the short and in the 640 long term, a common interest that is understood on both sides. A Select Committee on Public Expenditure, through one of its sub-committees, could make a contribution in establishing what are those common interests. This would help Parliament and the public, who are worried by the lack of a clear policy in this sphere of public spending.
Britain's assistance to overseas development covers the complex of aid, trade and loans. Three Government Departments are involved, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—which is currently engaged in gobbling up the Ministry of Overseas Development—the Board of Trade and the Treasury. Any scrutiny of overseas aid under the new pattern of Select Committees will have to examine the work of all three Departments: otherwise it will be unable to deal properly with one of the main causes of diffusion and waste of our efforts to help developing countries, which is the lack of co-ordination and sometimes even the clash of aims between those three Departments of State.
The old Select Committee which was set up to examine the work of the Ministry of Overseas Development was designed as a departmental committee, but, because of the nature of overseas aid, it could not work successfully on that narrow basis. I believe that it was wrong to establish it as a departmental and not as a subject Select Committee. I hope that any new sub-committee set up under a Select Committee on Public Expenditure will, by its terms of reference, avoid those pitfalls.
The second Select Committee of which I have experience, on Race Relations and Immigration, has just been described by its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley). It had to consider problems that are comparatively new in Britain. There is a lack of knowledge of what is happening in our midst as a result of recent coloured immigrations. This has been worrying people. There is widespread public disquiet at the creation of new social problems and the highlighting of old ones such as the national housing shortage. In addition, there are, in this scene, two new and experimental Acts of Parliament designed to outlaw racial discrimination, and two new bodies, the Race Relations Board and the Community Relations 641 Council. In this new and controversial field the work of the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration helped to stimulate a reasonable dialogue between Parliament, the Executive and the public.
It was a large Committee, consisting eventually of 16 members. This had two advantages. First, it was able to include Members who reflected the wide range of public opinion on this subject. Second, it was able to send out in subcommittees representative groups which could still reflect that wide range of public opinion. It was fortunate that our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East, was experienced and had a deep personal interest in the subject. It was equally fortunate that he was outstandingly well served by the Clerk's Department. On this point I would support every word uttered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). We were also very well served by the Library through its research staff. If we are now to have a limited number of Select Committees, perhaps these supporting services may prove adequate but if there is to be a greater number, they will surely stretch those resources and the House may find it difficult to train in time people to take on the heavy strain of this work.
I shall deal only with the work of the Race Relations Committee leading to its first report on coloured school leavers. Its second inquiry which was on immigration was interrupted by the General Election and I took some hand in a publication by the Runnymede Trust of a summary and analysis of the evidence.
In regard to the first task, I believe that it was in the day-to-day work on papers, the hearing of evidence in public, the internal discussions but, above all, in the visits to local authority areas where many of the coloured immigrants lived that helped this Committee to settle down as a team and to begin to understand the problem. What was important was the cross-party dialogue that grew up in the Select Committee leading us to understand each other's views and to know one another as individuals. This made communication possible, and, in the end, the emergence of a unanimous report.
642 Some 40 recommendations emerged from this Committee. All of them were within the outline of existing policy. Nearly all the recommendations were accepted by the Government. This short report was not debated in the House, but it was widely reported in the Press. The Press has provided a useful service in the projection of this part of Parliamentary work. What is of some importance in assessing the rôle and procedures of Select Committees is that the main impact of the work of the Race Relations Committee was achieved before the report was published. Perhaps this is a strange example of the means disqualifying the end. Most of the meetings had been held in public, and the rational discussions that took place at the formal meetings between the Committee and Ministers, Government Departments, local authorities, organised bodies and individuals were widely reported in the local as well as in the national Press. This helped to bring into the open many subjects which people have been reluctant to talk about, subjects which had been productive of wild rumours and statements which had raised fears and emotions on all sides. I well remember some of our witnesses saying to us afterwards what a relief it had been to have the subject discussed publicly in a disciplined manner before a Select Committee.
The prospect of giving evidence in public before a Select Committee made Government Departments—and, I suspect, the Ministers who gave so generously of their time—an opportunity and, indeed, a need to review their own policies and to clarify their own aims and objectives. Though this obviously involved much hard work, I believe it may have subsequently helped the people who did the work. Many—no, most—of the local authorities we visited were uneasy at the prospect of having to give evidence in public on this new and difficult subject. In the event most of them said to us that our visit had led them to re-examine their local situation and what policies they had for dealing with it. They had had to concentrate their thinking on what they should do for the future since they were to be questioned on it. Another side effect was that the formal questioning and the informal discussions led to a useful cross-fertilisation of ideas between the different areas we visited.
643 The public meetings also served as a useful local forum for an exchange of views between all interested groups. I remember the universities coming forward in one area and saying that they had never had a dialogue with the local authorities on the subject we were examining. After this had occurred they thought things would never be the same again and would be much more open and easier to discuss.
I believe that these open discussions were the starting point of a number of new initiatives by local authorities as well as by groups and individuals. Another example of this—from the centre—is that the meetings of the Select Committee with the Department of Employment and Productivity led directly to a series of positive measures by which the Department through its field officers helped employers to understand the potential and the problems of coloured school leavers. They gave evidence to us of the change of mind which had been brought about by their two meetings with us on this subject. My main point is that as a result of our meetings many initiatives were taken at the centre and in local authority areas long before our report was produced.
In conclusion, I believe that this Committee helped the work of Parliament in several ways. It gave 16 Members first-hand experience of new and controversial social problems and made their experience and their conclusions available to Parliament and Government through their report. It led to a reasonable range of new action by the central Government and local authorities. It contributed to a useful exchange between Parliament, the Executive and the public not only in London but in dispersed areas of the country; and there is a need for Parliament to be seen at its work outside London. The local public reaction once it had seen the business on which the Committee was engaged was one of welcome. It helped, thanks to the mass media, to spread information and rational views on problems which are not easily understood and are still somewhat explosive. These are, I suggest, useful contributions to the work of Parliament.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
I had the honour and privilege 644 to chair the Select Committee on Education. Since the Leader of the House proposes to liquidate that Select Committee and abruptly terminate our inquiry into teacher training, he will no doubt expect me to be critical of his proposals. If so, he will be disappointed since I fully support them. I would not make out a special case for survival of this Select Committee since if there is work to be done, as I suggest there is, then it will still be undertaken under the new arrangements.
With regard to the inquiry into teacher training, I do not wish to arrogate to myself the collective wisdom of the Committee but I am sure that if we were reformed our major recommendation would be that there should be an inquiry into that subject. I think that the Select Committee has done a useful job. It found that the Department was reluctant, and refused, to promote an inquiry which everyone knowledgeable in education wanted. The Secretary of State was wise to take the initiative and to decide that there will be an inquiry. The first round evidence, as it were, taken by the Select Committee will be useful to that inquiry. It will also be useful to those who gave evidence to see what evidence was given by other bodies at the time. The Select Committee also had comprehensive documentation. Therefore, I am not dissatisfied with the steps which have been taken.
The Select Committee on Education was a departmental committee—although, as Chairman of that Committee, I have no idea what a departmental committee is. In so far as there is a distinction between a departmental committee and a subject committee, I think that is wholly artificial. In so far as it is meaningful, then it is wholly undesirable.
I, like the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), gave evidence before the Procedure Committee. I find that I told that Committee that I was anxious to avoid these committees appearing to be in direct confrontation with the departments into whose affairs they were inquiring. I did so largely for the reasons given by the right hon. Gentleman. It is premature to expect specialised select committees suddenly to mushroom in direct confrontation with the Departments. In fact, the Committee on 645 Education always behaved as a subject committee.
I was occasionally surprised when I heard some apprehension from the Department about the Committee's activities, because I always thought it was important to avoid direct confrontation with the Department. It is not a difficult matter to seek on educational issues, but the Committee, in fact, inquired into the inspectorate, student relations, and, as I have said, teacher training, because these matters were not party controversial and it was unlikely to be driven into direct confrontation with the Department.
The members of the Committee pleaded with the Government to make it a subject committee. I said, "Whatever you do, we will behave like a subject committee." But, for some reason which I have never understood, it remained a departmental committee.
The odd point—I am sure that it was odd to most hon. Members—was that the Committee could not take any initiative. It could not do anything to bring its views before the House except, as it did, by means of a special report. In its special report the Committee said:We urge the Government to give careful consideration to methods whereby the House itself may be enabled to decide which specialist committees it wants and what type they should be.I congratulate the Leader of the House because, in effect, this is what is proposed in the Green Paper. But I believe that his proposals are preferable to those in the Green Paper, because they are less specific, more elastic, and more flexible.
The Procedure Committee, naturally enough, looking at this matter against the background of the Estimates Committee, largely concentrated on the scrutiny of expenditure. But an important point emphasised in the Green Paper and by the right hon. Gentleman is that the specialised committees have effectively opened new channels of communication between Parliament and interested bodies and individuals throughout the country. This is most important.
I am not as optimistic as my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart). We should recognise that we had the lowest percentage poll at the last General Election of any developed civilised democracy—and that is very 646 disturbing. I am becoming increasingly disturbed by the aggravating difficulty of persuading people to act even in their own interests. There is a pervasive tendency to leave things to others. It is important that we take all ways and means open to us to encourage participation—to encourage people that they have an opportunity to present their points of view and that they will be considered.
I am sure that this factor was in the minds of all members of the Select Committee when choosing the issue of student relations, which had received considerable public attention and caused considerable anxiety. As with teacher training, the committee found that there was a reluctance on the part of any responsible body to hold an inquiry. The issue moreover was itself affected by student demands for participation. Therefore, it was a proper subject upon which to invite representations and to convey the Committee's views in the light of the representations made.
The Committee heard about 600 witnesses. It paid 25 visits to universities and colleges. Whatever the value of the Committee's report, I believe that it consciously tried to make a report conditioned by the evidence which had been given. That was its purpose. The Committee had a similar purpose when it inquired into teacher training. There was a feeling of impotence among people at the universities and colleges who thought that there should be an inquiry but could not instigate such an inquiry. Thanks to the Secretary of State, they must now feel that their representations to the Committee have been worth while.
It is easy enough to say this, but it is difficult to put it into practice. However, if we believe in this Parliamentary development then there should be debates in the House following upon such reports. I do not suggest debates following all reports. We want debates only when there is sufficient general interest to justify them.
I have been a Member of this House for a long time. I am amazed at the reluctance shown to organising the use of parliamentary time to better effect. I am always amazed—I may be particularly naive—when I come in for Business Questions to find what a lot of old rubbish is taking up parliamentary time week 647 after week when there are so many matters which we should be discussing, including, incidentally, some of the issues reviewed in these reports.
If we have such reports—this was important concerning student relations—and Members take the trouble to make recommendations based on them, then I believe that there must be some reaction from the Government. We did not get any reply from the Government on student relations. My own Government, which gave the vote to young people at 18, did not bother to reply. This is very dangerous because, as we know, repeatedly in this sphere of student activity we have had response taken to violent action. It would be far better to take response to considered representations.
I do not want to exaggerate. The universities and colleges have paid close regard to many of the points which the Committee recommended. But when we talk about participation we mean not only the House of Commons but also the Government. They must show that at least they are conscious of the recommendations made by Select Committees and should respond. I am not asking them to express agreement. I am asking them to respond, because this is continuing the dialogue.
§ Mr. Ian Lloyd (Portsmouth, Langstone)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves that extremely interesting point, may I ask whether he agrees that there is a central paradox: that often legislation, which is the main preoccupation of the House, does not always involve vital issues, and that vital issues, which should often be the preoccupation of the House, do not always require legislation?
§ Mr. Willey
I hope that I am not trying to be too dogmatic. I do not believe that the solution is simple, or more effective steps would have been taken by now, but perhaps we ought to be a little more realistic about legislation. I have spent a lot of time upstairs in Committee arguing detailed Amendments without very much discussion on the principles behind the Amendments and without, very often, informed representation by the people being affected by the legislation.
In addition to the scrutiny of expenditure, and in addition to making Parliament more accessible, there is the other 648 point that has been made, and it is not unimportant, that inquiries by these Select Committees are important because they expose, or expose a little, the decision-making processes within the Departments. Ministerial responsibility is a cloak for a lot of murkiness, muddle and slipshoddery within the Departments. It is a good discipline that now and again a Department has a Select Committee devoting its inquiry into a particular aspect of policy so that the Department concerned has to make its reply and analyse and look at the policy that it has been carrying out.
I had a graphic experience of this a long time ago. I was Chairman of an Estimates Committee inquiring into the Ministry of Food. No sooner had we completed our inquiry than I went to the Ministry of Food, where I was struck by two things: first, the seriousness with which the Department had looked upon that inquiry; second, the conscientiousness with which it considered the different points made by the Select Committee in its recommendations. Quite apart from that, it was a good discipline for the Department to think of the presentation of the reasons for doing what it was doing.
Coming to the proposals in the Green Paper, I should like briefly to reiterate what has been said already. It is important that the right hon. Gentleman should regard these proposals as flexible and capable of ready adaptation. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames. I think that he can congratulate himself on being largely responsible for the establishment of the liaison committee of the group of chairmen. It has still an important and effective part to play.
I endorse all that has been said about the shortage of supporting staff. I do this hesitatingly because I am appreciative of the support that I have always had on Select Committees, and certainly now from the part-time specialist advisers. I have been amazed at the work which has been done by so few people, but I thoroughly agree with what has been said about the Public Accounts Committee in comparison with other select committees.
As I am sure my colleagues on other committees will agree, there was some improvement during the course of our experience on the committees, but it was 649 too slow, and the reason for that is that we are not effective enough in demanding our rights. There is too much hole-in-the-corner negotiation with the Treasury. The Treasury does not want us to be strongly supported because it has a direct interest here. I think that we should lay down the staffing requirements, and then insist that we get them.
I am not particularly anxious to have a room to myself; and I appreciate that there are disadvantages in Members being tucked away on different floors and out of the general stream of House of Commons activities. It would be a good thing nevertheless if the chairman and members of the committee got their accommodation and other facilities, because that would help them to get what I regard as the crucial support of the staff needed to enable them to carry out their tasks.
On the question of membership of the new Committee I know how the right hon. Gentleman's mind has worked. He was a Chief Whip. He no doubt said to himself, "I am abolishing the Estimates Committee and Specialist Committees. I shall have to have a committee larger than the Estimates Committee but, overall, I shall economise and save a few members." That is, of course, nonsense. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to look at the records of the Members who served on Select Committees. He will find that they are the activists in the House. They are not the Members with poor division records. They are the Members who serve on Standing Committees, on unofficial committees, party committees and so on.
I would rather approach this matter in the light of what one expects this Committee to do. If one does that, in one sense the Committee is too large and in another it is too small. I am attracted by the right hon. Gentleman's proposals, because he is giving the initiative to the House to determine the matters into which it will inquire. One could do this with a relatively small nuclear committee which could survey the field generally and promote the inquiries and appoint what, in effect, would be Specialist Committees. Alternatively, one could have a committee from which one formed sub-committees. If one regards it in the second sense, the committee is not too large but too small. If the right hon. Gentleman approaches the committee in that sense, I hope that he will allow for co-option.
650 I say this hesitantly in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) who has served with such distinction on the Estimates Committee. One of the disadvantages of the Estimates Committee is that one gets a sub-committee which then pursues all manner of inquiries. Whereas the members may be interested in a particular inquiry, those who are not so interested in another inquiry may nevertheless have to take part in it. On the Select Committee on Education and Science we had exclusively members who were intensely interested in education. This was a very good thing for the Committee and for the inquiries that it conducted. I think that when particular inquiries are pursued there should be some latitude, some flexibility, in the membership of the Committee.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I do not press those views. I know that they will be borne in mind. I am anxious that the right hon. Gentleman should get ahead with implementing these proposals, because the Session is passing by. As I am sure T. S. Eliot would have said about these proposals, on the whole I find them satisfactory.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Sir Henry d'Avigdor-Goldsmid (Walsall, South)
It is a special pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) because, unwittingly, he once did me a very good turn. I was chairman of a sub-committee of the Estimates Committee in 1964, and we reported on the Forestry Commission. The right hon. Gentleman found himself in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the first thing that he did was to legislate on the lines of my report. I am sure that there was no more important busiess on hand at the time, but that action has always left me with a soft spot for the right hon. Gentleman and made me feel that the work of these small sub-committees does sometimes have its reward.
The debate today could range very wide, but I do not want to take it widely, because my right hon. Friend has put up these interesting proposals for an Expenditure Committee and I want to direct myself very much to that issue.
I think that I could say en passant that I do not agree with all that has been said on both sides of the House, but there is an agreeable unanimity, and 651 another agreeable feature to which I do not mind calling attention is the fact that we have now had, I think I am right in saying, six speeches from right hon. Members, and the whole debate has lasted only one and a half hours. This seems to be a pleasurable record, and one which perhaps bodes well for the committee system.
I should like, first, to mention the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, on which I have had the honour of sitting for about 10 years. This Committee has a good name because it never has its reports debated. There is no need for them to be debated, because they are mainly of technical interest. More than that, I would point to one or two successes that the Committee has had without a debate.
For example, the Committee was actually given terms of reference to inquire into the Post Office before the Post Office Bill was drafted, and I think that its report had an influence on the drafting of the Bill. I also think—this may be more controversial—that the Committee's Report on the Bank of England, which has not yet had an official reply from the Government, has nevertheless been taken notice of by the Bank in several respects. I am certain that these matters would not have been attended to in this way if the Committee had not reported.
I hope that I shall be forgiven if I pay a tribute to the Chairman of that Committee, the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), who seems to have achieved the most marvellous marriage of minds with our former colleague, Colonel Lancaster. That may seem an unlikely situation, but it was a great success. The combination of the two was extremely effective and went like a marriage bell.
I am glad to see the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) in his place. I can scarcely think of any subject on which I have ever been in agreement with him, but I would pay tribute to his service as Chairman of the Estimates Committee, on a sub-committee of which I had the honour to serve under him, when I was much impressed by his qualities as a chairman and leader.
The demise of the Estimates Committee I rather regret, because, curiously enough, it gave scope for some of the 652 most brilliant people in the House—and I am not referring to hon. Members—to show their form. I had the good fortune to be chairman of sub-committees of which the clerks were Robert Rhodes James and Keith Middlemass, two young men who certainly have considerable careers before them as historians. Certainly Robert Rhodes James and Keith Middlemass showed great authority in the reports that they produced.
Here we have this small group of people, with a young clerk, taking on embattled Government Departments. What chance is one likely to have against a stonewalling operation? Absolutely none, as I know from my dismal experience in considering the Admiralty headquarters. That was a wholly ineffective operation. Another such operation was the Atomic Energy Authority, whose industrial uses we inquired into: that again did not work.
But an interesting inquiry which I was landed in by my right hon. Friend the present Secretary of State for Employment was that into the acquisition of transport aircraft. My right hon. Friend, having chosen that subject, was then promoted and the chairmanship of the subcommittee devolved on me. This was the year of Concorde, 1962–63. I had a reason to refer to that report recently and my cheeks were not red—that is to say, I think that the criticisms that we developed in that report have been amply borne out by developments.
But this was an impossibly difficult report to do. Robert Rhodes James did an extraordinary job in producing a coherent document, but it was too big for a little sub-committee. Then, of course, Concorde blew up into a very big summit of controversy, and we had a full-scale debate in the House. I remember very well saying in that debate that I was very happy to leave the discussion to those who knew a good deal less about it than I did.
Rhodes James got the point that to make an inquiry stick one had to get hold of a particular subject which had a topicality about it. A subject we did together was the University Grants Committee. Again, there was an interesting topic there, which was the purchase of a computer by London University: I do not need to dig that up now. But all these 653 were small inquiries with an intelligent clerk which tended to produce interesting and valuable results. How will this apply when we come to the proposed Expenditure Committee?
First, on the question of staff, I wish that I could see what the answer was. Clearly, if one can have the services of 500 people in the Auditor-General's Department, one does not need to think of one intelligent clerk. But I wonder how the sub-committees of the proposed Expenditure Committee will operate. I suspect that, in the end, they will be overawed by some expenditure Department or other.
I detect from my right hon. Friend's proposals an idea of having sub-committees of five. I think that there are seven or eight subjects and he is proposing a membership of about 45. I wonder whether five is enough, taking into account the likelihood of five Members of the House attending regularly. We all know that these inquiries lose their first interest after a sitting or two. I am certain that the hon. Member for Fife, West has had to make up a quorum of a lot of Estimates Committee sub-committees after he became Chairman. I see him nod.
I suspect that five is too few initially and that something more like nine or so would probably be sounder. Nine also has the advantage that one has to limit it because there is the question of supplying information. The clerical staff here are considerably taxed by supplying information to committees, particularly so when reference is made to publications. Asking an institution to let one have 22 numbers of its last publication is perhaps a little over the odds. Nine is a reasonable working number, and I see that that was the recommendation of the Select Committee on Procedure, on the basis that fewer than nine people would attend.
If these sub-committee chairmen are not careful, they will bore their members into absence. This is a very real danger. There is always, in my experience, a very full agenda to be got through when important witnesses come before committees or sub-committees. To get the necessary questions answered and on the record, the chairman must take control of the discussion. Attractive as it is to 654 wander off at a tangent, if he does that the meeting is indefinitely prolonged and the proper information does not emerge and get on the record.
It therefore needs a rather tactful and, if I may say so, idle chairman to allow sufficient scope for the other members of the sub-committee to get their piece in. This is one of the respects in which the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries was particularly fortunate.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals and the deep thought which he has given them. I do not have experience of specialist committees, but I am bound to admit to a little nervousness about them in that if there are too many of them we shall be creating pundits, not necessarily well-briefed or knowledgeable ones and, as chairmen of specialist committees, they will have important positions.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)
The hon. Gentleman is drawing a distinction between the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, on which I served for some years, and Specialist Committees, of which, in the last Parliament, I was chairman of one. Is the Nationalised Industries Committee a Specialist Committee?
§ Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid
I had the pleasure of serving with the hon. Gentleman and I know how valuable his services were. There are over 20 subjects in the terms of reference of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. They range wide and I commend him to the Appendix to the Report of the Committee on Procedure, in which they are detailed. I do not think a member of the Nationalised Industries Committee would regard himself necessarily as a pundit on both, for example, air transport and the National Coal Board.
§ Mr. Palmer
The same can be said of science and technology. The Select Committee on that subject has terms of reference ranging over a variety of subjects. I therefore do not see the distinction the hon. Gentleman is trying to make.
§ Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid
I do not think this is a profitable argument. The point about pundits is that they tend—certainly in America, where the Specialist Committee system is one of the biggest 655 nuisances which the Government must combat—to have a disproportionate influence on Government activity and legislation. That is my fear.
I wish my right hon. Friend's proposals well. I regard this as a genuine attempt to cope with the question of expenditure, with which we are obsessed and which worries us greatly. I hope that in the initial stage he will limit himself to a relatively few sub-committees and see how they get on before expanding the system. Eight sub-committees is a frightening number and the prospect must daunt even the most courageous chairman. Let us first see how these subcommittees work, remembering that most of them will be sitting simultaneously. I suggest that initially the number should be restricted to four.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)
The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) made a valid point when he spoke of the size of subcommittees. One must remember that, in any event, the size is reduced to the level of the quorum, and the mind boggles at the number of important decisions that could emanate from a subcommittee manned by perhaps three hon. Members, unless the size of the committee is increased. I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware of this.
This has been an extremely interesting and well-informed debate because so many hon. Members who have spoken have personal experience of important positions on Select Committees. I am not exactly in that position. I am one of those whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley), who I regret is not in his place, wanted to see deprived of the opportunity of selecting Members for select committees—but that is an experience I share with the Leader of the House.
In general, I think the Leader of the House has, in this year of grace, got the balance right. That is, after all, what he was trying to do. It is a difficult thing to do because there are so many matters which must be balanced out. The Green Paper rightly talks about the Chamber and its importance. We are told that it 656 must be the dramatic centre of work in Parliament, and that is absolutely correct. Equally, the scrutiny of Government expenditure must be safeguarded, we are told, and that is true.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Walsall, South about his dislike of pundits. Those who have obtained expertise in a subject are always much more interesting to listen to than those who have not, and the use of Indian terms is not necessarily a derogation of an individual's capabilities. Not only those who acquire expertise are catered for by the Specialist Committee system. Those who have expertise already are included, and this is a valuable asset. Thus, Specialist Committees can serve the dual function of giving people expertise and having as their members those who already possess expertise.
I was, therefore, somewhat surprised when the former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), I thought rather cavalierly, dealt with the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), who had asked, in effect, "Why not a Select Committee on the Common Market?" I was surprised because the issues involved in that case should obviously be debated on the Floor of the House. There is no question about that and my right hon. Friend rightly said so. However, the minutiae of detail that must be discussed is something that might well go to a committee, just as the technical matters of the Finance Act were considered in Committee upstairs before the main issues came to the Floor of the House.
There are two other points which the Green Paper rightly tries to reconcile. Something beyond the scrutiny of Government expenditure is the probing of and criticism of the Government, and they are distinct. One deals with expenditure and the other deals with decisions. Both now and in his previous incarnation the Leader of the House must have been aware, as I am, of the negative requirement of not overworking hon. Members and causing duplication. One learns by experience. I do not know of a better way of learning. There were occasions during the bracing changes made in the days of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) when perhaps a little less activity might have been welcome to the House.
657 The Leader of the House knows that I have always held him in very high regard and that I have the deepest affection for him. Such remarks are always a prelude to a point of disagreement. I hope he will not mind my saying that he is not as Green as his Paper. When he says that the Chamber is the centre of the House, he does not mean that it always is the dramatic focus of events, because we know that this is not so. It is always at Prime Minister's Questions. It usually is at ordinary Ministers' Questions. It certainly is during a debate under Standing Order No. 9. At the really crucial battles between the parties it can be exciting and stimulating. At moments when the parties are united because of some national event which has brought them together, it can be intensely moving. These are the qualities that the Chamber possesses.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, you more than most hon. Members have experience of other occasions in the Chamber when long dreary hours pass with hon. Members droning on relentlessly, sometimes, I regret to say—I think that I carry the Leader of the House with me in this—stimulated by their Whips. We have a curious rule—it is more than a convention—that a debate on something vital to the community's future must end at 10 o'clock, and so must something that is of importance to no more than eight people. Should there be the likelihood of a Division, the Whips go out into the Tearoom, into the Smoking Room and throughout the length and breadth of this establishment looking for people who know nothing about the subject and who are not interested in it to speak upon it so that the debate may be kept going until 10 o'clock. I take the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland (Mr. Willey), who thought that we did not altogether use our parliamentary time as expeditiously as we might.
I mention this point because if one says—rightly, as I think—that there must not be a conflict between Committees and the Chamber and that the Chamber always must be the dramatic focus, a rethinking of the time we spend in the Chamber might resolve that dilemma. It is about time in this amicable and unanimous atmosphere that somebody disagreed and threw a cat among the 658 pigeons. My cat would go somewhere in this direction.
Do we have to have the Chamber of the House of Commons being used throughout the time Parliament is sitting? Do we have to have it being used five days a week when a great deal of the time and energies of the House are not in the Chamber? We should certainly keep it for the great moments and for the vital debates, but it is not necessary to have it going on night after night until at least 10 o'clock and then beyond. This is where I believe that there is a greater future for the Specialist Committee and this is where I part company with the hon. Member for Walsall, South.
If this is so, how best can we arrive at this? One thing which stares us in the face is this. The House can only experiment in its procedure and try one thing at a time, so that it gets the appearance of a patchwork quilt. We have seen how first the Scottish Grand Committee and then later and rather timidly the Welsh Grand Committee came into existence. Should we not be considering the creation of other regional committees—a London Grand Committee and a grand committee for every other region?
If this were done, such committees could discuss matters of common interest in their region. If I were asked when such committees should meet, I would say that they should meet every fourth Friday. That would not interfere with private Members' time. It would be valuable to the House. It would give hon. Member a feeling of participation in their regions. It would be useful to all of us.
The hon. Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair), in seeking to justify Specialist Committees, talked about a reasonable dialogue between Parliament, the Executive, and the public. That is a very good justification of what a Specialist Committee should be achieving. It would be helped along by regional committees.
I am sorry that paragraph 19 of the Green Paper comes down against departmental committees. A rather inadequate reason is given for this. It is said that the limits of departmental responsibility are artificial. That ignores paragraph 22 and the very formidable right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), who was an absolutely 659 splendid liaison Chairman and saw in the past, when we had a large number of Select Committees, that every Select Committee kept within its bounds. What is said in paragraph 19 is not a good reason for saying that a departmental committee is not to the general good of the House.
I have said that in this year of grace the Leader of the House has done as much as he genuinely can, but I should like him to give consideration to whether we could not go back to the 1960 concept. All these things have grown up tentatively, whether it be the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, the Scottish Affairs Committee or the Race Relations Committee. They have all grown up and survived.
Let the Leader of the House, remembering the 1960 concept, choose a subject for a Select Committee which is a small nucleus of hon. Members but which could expand into a standing committee by the addition of other hon. Members. This would have two advantages. First, it would give a real expertise constantly there. Second, it would add an interest to standing committees which they do not always have.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have some experience of how Standing Committees are selected in government. The less an hon. Member knew about a subject, the more silent he was by temperament, the better a Government Committee member one felt him to be. This is not the best way of answering the most important of the five points that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to arrive at, which is the probing and criticism of a government. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to give consideration to my suggestion of returning to the 1960 concept. I appreciate that it cannot be done this year, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tie a knot in his handkerchief and bear it in mind for a future Session.
It is remarkable how quickly the right hon. Gentleman has produced the Green Paper. No doubt he has had other preoccupations, but it would be a little discourteous of me to talk about them at this moment, except to say that they would have been time-consuming. The 660 Paper has been produced. It is a great advance on anything we have had before and I should like to say how grateful I am to the right hon. Gentleman for it.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) made a very valuable suggestion resurrecting the recommendation of the Study of Parliament Group that there should be a part of parliamentary time when the Chamber is not sitting and Select and Specialist Committees could work during that time. This requires further consideration.
I rise as a survivor of the Select Committee on Procedure that made the Report that has been mentioned and as the present Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure. Let us try to get our Report into its proper perspective. We did not make any recommendations as to how hon. Members should spend their time outside the Chamber. It would have been impertinent for us to do so, and we did not do it. We were entrusted with an examination of the scrutiny of public expenditure, and, as the Lord President has said in paragraph 11 of his Green Paper, we said that we thought it essential to maintain continuance of the Public Accounts Committee of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, and of the Estimates Committee in a new form.
All the evidence which we received was that the present scrutiny of public expenditure by the House was imperfect and out of date. That was the whole burden of our Report. We were not dealing with the structure of Specialist Committees, but we were deeply concerned at the way in which the House has become completely out of date in examining public expenditure. How could the Estimates Committee do it, when, as the Treasury said in its evidence to us, only 60 per cent. of public expenditure is covered by a Vote and, therefore, a large part of public expenditure cannot at the present time be examined by the House?
For that reason, we tried to think of ways by which more information could be given to hon. Members not merely in some committee but in such a way that they could have adequate debates on public expenditure in the House. Between the years 1964 to 1969, public 661 expenditure increased from £12,000 million to £19,000 million, a most substantial increase, yet there has been no debate in the House on that huge increase and the reasons for it, and neither has sufficient information on the matter been given to hon. Members.
I pay tribute to the great attempts made in the last few years by successive Governments to deal with this problem. When he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary produced the first of the "Forward look" White Papers in December, 1963. The last Government—I give them full credit—provided far more financial and monetary statistics than hon. Members had received hitherto, and they finally came out with the Green Paper which was published in April, 1969.
It was, however, the opinion of the Select Committee on Procedure, which received evidence from outside the House as well as from Government Departments and the Treasury, that the amount of information given to hon. Members was inadequate in many respects.
In paragraph 15 of our Report, which we made some 16 months ago, we asked that this additional information should be given to hon. Members. Since then, there has been complete silence from both Governments on what they felt about our recommendation. You have asked, Mr. Speaker, that contributions should be short, so I shall not read paragraph 15 in full, but I ask the Lord President to say whether the Government will give the additional information to which we there referred, such asexplanations … of differences in the major figures of expenditure when they vary from those last published",and, as we suggested at the end,a table … showing capital transactions of the public sector on a functional basis.Until the House is afforded that information, it cannot conduct a proper debate on the Public Expenditure White Paper.
Second, we asked that, when the Public Expenditure White Paper had been produced, there should be a two-day debate in the Chamber on this vital matter. To my mind, that is a far more important House of Commons matter than some of the points which have been made about different Specialist Committees, because, 662 as my right hon. Friend the Lord President said, this Chamber is the main Parliamentary stage. We must be equipped to examine these problems and thrash them out on this parliamentary platform here, and we must have the time for it.
When I asked the Financial Secretary to the Treasury whether we were to be given two days to debate the Public Expenditure White Paper coming out in January, I was told that no decision had yet been reached and it would be referred to the Lord President. I should like my right hon. Friend to answer that question at the end of the debate.
In considering this question of public expenditure and the five-year forward look, it struck us that in that debate hon. Members could not have sufficient information unless they had made adequate investigation in Committee beforehand, and we thought that, if the Estimates Committee were expanded and given a new remit, it should be enabled to provide right hon. and hon. Members with the background so that they could make valuable contributions in that two-day debate on public expenditure.
Those are the circumstances in which the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure comes into this debate. We ask that there should be an adequate Committee, or adequate Committees, perhaps, on expenditure to examine the five-year forward look in the light of what people outside are asking: how is Parliament examining and controlling public expenditure? The general view of those outside who are equipped to criticise Parliament on this matter is that our practice is completely inadequate at present.
I welcome the Green Paper, but I ask the Lord President to say whether he envisages the kind of Committee on expenditure which we recommended. I agree very much with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) that it is necessary for the Committee to be of adequate size if one is to have subcommittees of nine. Our idea was that there should be sub-committees of nine, though I know that there are certain hon. Members who sat on the previous Select Committee who thought that seven would be enough. Our view was that, if we were to have some body examining the forward look, it would be necessary 663 to have more than 45 members of the Committee; 45 would not be adequate for the task.
The right hon. Member for Deptford said, "Why do it by function? Why not do it by Department?" He is a little behind the times. We made our recommendation because Departments generally, under the stimulus of the Treasury, are doing the five-year forward look by function and not by Department. Therefore, if Parliament is to be properly equipped to examine the huge public expenditure of £19,000 million, it must be done by function, because that is the modern accounting method.
I do not say that our recommendation is necessarily the answer, but let us have an expenditure Committee which can do its work properly. We thought that if we had an expenditure committee it would be necessary to have a steering committee which had an overall grasp of the situation. It is no good having sub-committees hammering away at certain functions of government. There must be a steering committee to examine the question of the five-year forward look, consider the policy behind the expenditure and discuss why certain priorities have been chosen. Hon. Members say that we must be careful about this. An earlier speaker said that we do not want to introduce party considerations. But this is the stuff of which Parliament is made. We must know the reasoning behind the priorities, and let it be argued in some committee, with the report coming to the House.
I appreciate that there is a great deal of common sense in the Lord President's idea that such matters as power and transport, which are mostly the functions of the nationalised industries, should be examined by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries rather than by an expenditure committee. I ask my right hon. Friend to tell us who will look at the Government's contribution to the capital expenditure of the nationalised industries, which in 1968 amounted to £1,100 million. It must be considered by some committee. Will it be considered by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries or the expenditure Committee?
§ Mr. Selwyn Lloyd (Wirral)
Would my right hon. Friend agree that although the Committee of Chairmen of Select 664 Committees presided over in the last Parliament by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) was very useful and necessary, in our minds the steering committee of the Committee on expenditure would have a much more detailed job to do in relation to the work of the Committee which the superior Committee of Chairmen of Select Committees would be unlikely to do?
§ Mr. Turton
I entirely agree. The steering committee should be the core of the expenditure committee. It must devote a great deal of time to these matters. How can the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, one of the hardest worked back bench Members of the House, possibly afford the time necessary to do the work? I agree that it must be for whoever is made chairman of the expenditure committee to reach a decision. But there must be a steering committee to look at the general wide conspectus of the five-year forward look. There must be room in the numbers to provide for that.
Who will examine the Government's contribution to local authority capital expenditure, which amounts to £2,600 million a year? That is completely neglected by any expenditure-examining committee. It must be covered by the expenditure committee.
We were not engaged in examining how right hon. and hon. Members spend their time outside the Chamber, and no doubt there is a very good case for many Specialist Committees, but must they all he of the size that they were before? Could not some of them be reduced in number to allow more for the detailed work which is demanded by people who are anxious about the falling away of Parliament's control of public expenditure?
Another matter which lies very much in the hands of my right hon. Friend the Lord President is this. Much time is taken up by Members in Standing Committees. This must be considered. I have here the comparative figures in units of Members' sittings. They result from multiplying the number of Members by the number of committee sittings in the Session, during the period from 1962 to the last Session. In 1962 the number of Member sitting units was 155,000—about 100,000 in Standing Committees and 665 50,000 in Select Committees. By 1967–68, which was the heyday of the right hon. Member for Deptford, the number of Member sitting units had very nearly doubled. It had risen to 298,000—about 170,000 in Standing Committees and 120,000 in Select Committees. Then, when the right hon. Gentleman became Minister of Public Building and Works, the tension was lowered. In the last Session of the last Parliament the number had dropped to 264,000, divided equally between Standing Committees and Select Committees.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
For the purposes of clarity, would the right hon. Gentleman say whether they were attendances—or is he making the assumption that everybody attended?
§ Mr. Turton
At one time I was Chairman of the Estimates Committee, and I know that even an analysis of the attendance of that body would not have given a true picture, because there are times when a Member pops into a committee for five minutes to get his attendance recorded. All that one can do—and this is what has been done through the very able official help which I received in the Select Committee on Procedure—is to take the number of Members in Standing Committees and the number of sittings of each Committee. I have excluded Committees, such as Second Reading Committees and the Welsh Grand Committee, which were introduced after 1962–63. Members are spending less time in Standing Committee and more time in Select Committees.
The situation must be watched. If my right hon. Friend can send fewer Bills to Committee upstairs, or if he can decrease the numbers on Standing Committees, he will allow more scope for Members to serve on the Expenditure Committee. This Expenditure Committee cannot function properly unless it has a minimum of six sub-committees of nine members each, with a steering committee, which would probably bring it up to between 60 or 70 instead of 45. That seems to me to be the minimum to get the efficient working of Parliament.
The House will know that, from that Report, as from the Report that we published last June, we are examining the scrutiny of taxation. That is what we have been remitted by the House, and 666 the Committee is now carrying out that examination. It would be wrong for me to saying anything which would prejudge our conclusions, but there is a body of evidence showing that this House should have in some form a scrutiny of taxation.
I hope that the Lord President will be able to assure me at the end of the debate that he will, in his plans for the future, allow for the fact that this Select Committee may recommend some committee of Members to embark upon that work in some form. I have to be vague. It would be a pity if we so defined our committees and this Committee on Expenditure that it overlooked that contingency which the Select Committee on Procedure is examining.
§ 6.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
This is a profoundly important debate. In a representative assembly like ours, there can be few matters of more enduring concern than the consideration we give to the quality and effectiveness of our internal institutions. Select Committees are clearly among the most important of our institutions. This is certainly so in terms of the balance of power between this House and executive Government. Moreover, it is this deeply sensitive balance which is one of our major concerns today.
The Lord President commended his Green Paper to us in a most persuasive and constructive speech. He seemed to regard it very much as a working paper for future discussions, both within and outside Parliament. There are many distinguished students of the British Parliament who want to participate in this debate. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) referred to the Study of Parliament Group. The viewpoint of that very distinguished group has had considerable influence on our thinking, much more I suspect than some of its members had feared.
In this context, may I say that I know right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on both sides will deeply mourn the passing of the late Professor H. Wiseman, sometime Professor of Government in the University of Exeter, who took a passionate and abiding interest in our institutions.
I acknowledge gratefully the kindly remarks which have been made about 667 my book, "The Growth of Parliamentary Scrutiny by Committee", which is published today. It is, of course, a collective work. It was made by practitioners from both sides of the House. I know it will be so regarded by the distinguished academic participants of the Study of Parliament Group in the wider debate about the future of Select Committees. As an aside, may I acknowledge the great scholarship of my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell)? His intervention during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) was nothing if not erudite. It is frequently busy people who can be called upon to accept new burdens. The work on "The Growth of Parliamentary Scrutiny by Committee" was very much the work of busy practitioners of the art of parliamentary government.
Because I have written at length on this matter, it is not my intention to speak at great length, but there are some problems with which I should like to deal. Before doing so, I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington will forgive me if I say that I was attracted by the suggestion of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). He would not expect it to be otherwise. The House knows of my concern that we should have all the facts about the implications of British entry to the European Economic Community.
§ Mr. Morris
I am certain that my right hon. Friend shares my regard for the Parliamentary skill, which is recognised on both sides of the House, of the hon. Member for Banbury. I congratulate him on the way in which he took the opportunity to say again that we should like to know as much as can possibly be known about the short and long-term implications of entering the E.E.C.
§ Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)
Is it not a fact that the Select Committee on Agriculture did make attempts to estimate and to evaluate the depth of this problem, as both hon. 668 Gentlemen know? They were not thwarted in any way by the Minister of Agriculture or by the Leader of the House: the difficulty lay in another quarter, in the Foreign Office, as poor Tudor Watkins would perhaps tell us if he were to come back.
§ Mr. Morris
It was the probing of that Select Committee, the first ever "departmental" Specialist Committee which whetted my appetite for more information about the detailed implications of British entry. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) may catch your eye later, Mr. Speaker. Certainly he made a powerful contribution to the work of the Select Committee on Agriculture and has written about its work in a way which I think will be of wide interest in the country.
One matter which concerns me greatly is that there are too few debates on reports from Select Committees. What is more, when those reports come before the House, the debates are often dominated by the members of the Select Committees themselves. This is why I am reminded of the saying of Oscar Wilde, when returning among friends from the first night of one of his plays. When he was asked how the play had gone, he said: "The play was a great success, but the audience was a failure".
Sir Douglas Glover, who was a member of the most venerable of the Select Committees, the Public Accounts Committee, said on 20th November last:It strikes me as a little nonsensical that when the House discusses the Reports of the Public Accounts Committee as well as Reports by Select Committees the only people who take part in the debates are the members of the Committees. Other hon. Members of the House, not members of the Committees, should be getting up and criticising our Reports. Investigations are a continuing process. … We do not get that sort of advice from our colleagues in the House because the Reports are debated only by the people who have produced them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1969; Vol. 791, c. 1549.]There is clearly still a wide chasm between the specialists who serve on the Select Committees and the great majority of their parliamentary colleagues. I am certain that Sir Douglas Glover would love to have been here today because again he was extremely concerned with our institutions. He was speaking on the 669 Report of the Public Accounts Committee for the Parliamentary Session 1968–69. The Committee had taken evidence for 30 days between 27th November, 1968, and 23rd June, 1969, and had interviwed the heads of some 17 Departments or Government agencies. Its Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendices, weighing one-and-three-quarters lbs, ran to 615 pages and was sold by Her Majesty's Stationery Office at £3 19s. 6d.
The subjects dealt with included the escalation in the cost of the Concorde aircraft without reference to Parliament, an excessive recruitment of staff by the Land Commission and a serious failure of financial control in the hiring of married quarters for troops serving in West Germany. Only one back bencher from outside the Committee took part in the debate and the whole Report was disposed of in two hours and 34 minutes by an almost empty House.
§ Mr. Sheldon
As a member of the Public Accounts Committee on that occasion, I suggest that this situation applies to other Select Committees. But not all matters need to be debated in the House. Very often, the main purpose of the Committee is dealt with quite adequately in the Committee itself. The point is made and fully accepted and in such cases it may be a pointless procedure for the point to be made yet again on the Floor of the House. The same thing could apply to some of these Select Committees we are thinking of setting up. Their investigations do not always have to be followed by debate in the House. Is debate in the House considered a sign of success?
§ Mr. Morris
Not necessarily always, but I think my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) would agree that the reports, for example, of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration ought perhaps to have received very much more consideration than they have from the House. Apart from the Sachsenhausen case—and special circumstances related to the Report about this case—there has not been very much consideration in the House of that Committee's reports. I agree that not every Report of a Select Committee needs to be discussed in detail by the House, but I know that there is a feeling—and it is 670 shared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington, who did so much as Leader of the House to find time for debate on Select Committee Reports—that we ought to consider in far more detail than we do reports which are made available. In an article in The Times on 24th November, 1969, Mr. David Wood described the scene to which I have referred like this:Chief Watchdog Boyd-Carpenter opened the debate at 4.12 p.m. and was followed by Senior Watchdog Douglas Glover, Watchdog Frank Hooley and Watchdog Edwin Brooks. Apart from one off-hand speech from each front bench, the only outsider who spoke was Watchdog Alistair Macdonald of Chislehurst.What a pity he is not here—At 6.30 p.m. the Watchdogs lost interest in barking out warnings to one another and slipped away into the night.As was implied in the revealing points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), most other right hon. and hon. Members were no doubt extremely pleased that they had been given the opportunity of an early night. But clearly—and I feel sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne would agree—we must try to have a meaningful balance between the Reports which can be left to make their own impact and those which really do deserve debate in the House.
§ Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)
There is also another method. I appreciate the humour of the story about the watchdogs, but my point is that the Permanent Secretaries of these Departments have to appear before the Committee and check with us. They had to get their Departments together and by the time they had given their evidence to the Committee, the fact was proved. So we should not write off the Committee with Mr. Wood's cheerful joke about watchdogs.
§ Mr. Morris
That is an important factor. Altogether, 17 Civil Service heads of Government Departments and Government agencies were involved. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) on many occasions pressed my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington, when he was Leader of the House, for consideration of these questions. He himself has questioned whether we are devoting enough attention to the work of Select Committees.
671 A further point is that of financial control. It is not, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley) has pointed out, only financial control in which we should be interested. There are some matters of intensely human concern into which his Select Committee and others have been probing in recent years. It is perhaps to take too narrow a view of the purpose of Select Committees to think that they should be preoccupied with financial control to the exclusion of matters of very great human interest like race relations and immigration.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) has been drawing attention to the importance of consumer problems in what he has to say about the future of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. It is a curious fact that the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, which now has considerable standing, should have given so little attention to the problems of consumers of the nationalised industries. At the inception of that Committee, hon. Members as well as the general public expected that it would specialise in the matters of most intimate concern to consumers. This again is something worth emphasising in the debate which will undoubtedly proceed after today on the proposals in the Green Paper.
I would not too readily dismiss the viewpoint that is put by my hon. Friends the Members for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) and Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson). Whatever hon. Members may think of that viewpoint, it is held with passionate sincerity by both of them. What they are really concerned about is the drift, as they see it, towards consensus politics in the committees. It has been emphasised in a number of speeches today that we have the party battle on the Floor of the House, whereas in Committees upstairs we tend to get far more agreement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone, and this viewpoint is shared by other hon. Members, is not arguing a negative case. He emphasises that we should provide better facilities and equipment for Members of the House which would enable them to use their own sources of information and so become 672 very formidable in challenging information provided by the Government. He argues that it means providing a research assistant, a secretary and suitable offices for each Member of the House. We are not well equipped at the present time. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend exerted every possible pressure to try to help with the growing administrative problems of the individual Member. I am quite certain that the right hon. Gentleman will now do all he can to carry that work forward.
What my hon. Friends the Member for Ebbw Vale and the Member for Penistone are presenting is a case certain aspects of which ought to be taken far more seriously than they have been so far. Nor must we deceive ourselves that every Member of the House is desperately keen to serve on Select Committees. Mr. Clifford Kenyon, who was a most respected and long-serving chairman of the Committee of Selection, told me recently that he saved three hon. Gentlemen from the prospect of severe penalties at the hands of the House by discharging them from Select Committees, in this case on Private Bills, and appointing himself in their places. This is rather disgraceful—
§ Mr. Morris
It is wholly disgraceful that the chairman of the Committee of Selection, in great haste on a Monday evening, should have to discharge hon. Members who have been appointed to Select Committees and appoint himself to ensure that they do not find themselves in what can be very dire trouble. Erskine May reminds us just what that trouble could be for the hon. Member who does not sign the undertaking forthwith and comply with it.
§ Mr. Palmer
Would not one of the problems about the conflict between Members serving on Standing Committees and Select Committees be overcome if it was agreed between the parties, if Bills were of a largely uncontroversial and administrative nature, that they could be referred to Select Committees for examination?
§ Mr. Morris
That is an important point which relates, I think, to what was perhaps partly in the mind of my 673 hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. As there is such pressure on the time available to the House, then clearly, if we can follow the procedure suggested by my hon. Friend, who has taken tremendous interest in these matters and is most deeply experienced, that would clearly be of benefit to the House.
The right hon. Gentleman the Lord President asked for a searching and open debate. This is the beginning of a very important debate about the future of some of our most important institutions. I hope that people outside Parliament as well as within the House will contribute to the debate in a constructive way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Workington can take legitimate pride in the fact that when he was Minister of Agriculture his Department was the first to be exposed to the glare and scrutiny of the first-ever departmental Specialist Committee. He has had an interest in this matter over the years. Ever since he entered Parliament, as I know from reading various articles that he has written, he has been very keen to develop and extend the work of Select Committees and, in particular, to institute Specialist Committees.
I know my hon. Friends will appreciate that access to Government and Ministers' information is a further matter of great importance. The question of access to the Government's and Ministers' own sources of information is clearly critical to the future functions of Select Committees, and indeed to the rôle of the backbencher in Parliament. It is equally important to define clearly the status of the advice and reports of Select Committees and the rights of these Committees to be consulted by the Executive in the processes of policy making. Even some of the strongest advocates of Specialist Select Committees disavow any intention of interfering in policy making, but obviously they expect the views of these Committees to be influential. Otherwise the whole exercise is robbed of its main purpose. There is need for much deeper thinking about some of the problems which arise when members of the legislature expect the same amount and/or quality of information as members of executive Government. Are members of the Civil Service to work in parallel, as it were, for members of the legislature 674 and executive Government? For members of the legislature these are clearly very important matters.
The Study of Parliament Group has said:Parliamentary control … means influence, not direct power; advice, not command; criticism, not obstruction; scrutiny, not initiative; and publicity, not secrecy.That classical dictum is well worth recalling in this debate.
There are right hon. and hon. Members who have worked tremendously hard for the success of the Select Committees we have. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take their viewpoints into account in seeking to ensure that specialist probes by Members of Parliament will become a permanent feature of the British parliamentary scene.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)
It is with the greatest trepidation that I speak about the committee system, and almost entirely from ignorance, having been absent from this House during the time when the committee system developed to the extent that it did. I should, however, say that there was one advantage in that enforced sabbatical of four years, because on returning to the House I noticed two things. One was the tremendously increased volume of work imposed upon Members of Parliament, both in volume and in quality, with a much larger amount of technical and semi-technical matter to be digested.
In those four years, I have also noticed a change in attitude outside this House. There is a far more sophisticated and critical approach by the public to the activities of Members of Parliament. People are more deeply concerned when they come to consider the vital question of the relationship between the Legislature and the Executive. In the minds of many people outside there is the fear that our proceedings, especially those on the Floor of the House, may become divorced from the realities of political and governmental existence. I said just now that I speak with trepidation in view of my period of absence from this House, but these are matters which have been forced upon my mind.
In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the proposals contained in the Green Paper, perhaps I should tell the House 675 that originally I searched my mind for some gracious golfing metaphor, because it seemed to be the way that the debate was going. However, I know nothing at all about golf, and I could only recall to mind the following nonsense rhyme by Edward Lear:There was a man of the BorderWhose affairs were all in disorder.However, that did not seem altogether applicable, so I offer it to my right hon. Friend as a compliment by contrast.
The arguments in the Green Paper are concise and sensible. It might be said that they are almost irresistible, since those points about which I would cross swords with my right hon. Friend are more matters of emphasis than content.
A number of hon. Members have already referred to the significance of this Chamber, and perhaps it is over-emphasising the case to argue, as paragraph 7 of the Green Paper does, that this debating Chamber still holds the primary position in Parliament. One has only to look round today. The Chamber is not exactly full to bursting. It is full on Budget days, at Question Time and when these seems to be a first-class row brewing. Sometimes those occasions are simultaneous. Otherwise, debate is sustained often by a mere handful of hon. Members. An argument based on the proposition that this Chamber is at all times the centre of our activities is unacceptable. On the other hand, a Chamber deserted and disregarded for a long period inevitably would bring Parliament into contempt. It is part of our tradition that Government and Opposition confront each other here, and, at the risk of being paradoxical, it must be said that the Government win their votes in the Division Lobby and the Opposition lose.
For a variety of reasons, this Chamber is inappropriate for a deep investigation of problems and often inappropriate for close argument. In that connection, I turn to my second difference of emphasis with my right hon. Friend, because one must consider the effect outside this House of those Select Committees which have functioned already. Many of them have had effects far beyond what has been considered in this House. There has been an element of participation by individuals and representative bodies, and 676 that has answered a definite need outside this House for participation and consideration. This is a service which those committees have performed. They have also done a little to puncture the myth of Ministerial responsibility. Text books on constitutional history told us when we were younger that Ministers solely decide and civil servants solely advise. The work done by Select Committees to destroy that myth has also been a useful function.
In this Chamber, with this sort of attendance and in this sort of debate, it can be said that there is another advantage in Select Committees. Hon. Members who have served on them, regardless of party differences, have found, as Canning once put it,… with keen discriminative sight,That black's not so blackNor white so very white.My third and final point concerns the complaint that the reports of Select Committees are seldom debated in this Chamber. The Green Paper appears to criticise the fact that they are not debated. I do not altogether agree. The reports exist, and frequently they have some effect, regardless of whether they are debated in this Chamber.
The Green Paper goes on to say that even when a report has been debated attendance in the Chamber has been poor. But that does little more than say that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen all have their different interests and concerns. We notice the same on other occasions.
In Appendix A of the Green Paper, I see under the heading "Science and Technology Committee" a reference to the United Kingdom nuclear power industry. I will not volunteer too much, but perhaps I might say that I would have been interested in that. Then there is a reference to the Natural Environment Research Council. I would have been interested in that, in view of its general influence and public interest. Next, I see a reference to defence research. I come then to a reference to carbon fibres. Here, I have to confess my ignorance. I am not sure what they are. I mean no disrespect to those hon. Members who were concerned with that inquiry. I would say only in a kind of verbal shorthand that I am not "hooked" by carbon fibres.
§ Mr. Palmer
I might point out to the hon. Gentleman that the chairman of the sub-committee who prepared that report, Mr. Brian Parkyn, is an industrial chemist. He understands what carbon fibres are.
§ Mr. Walder
I am happy to hear that he does. I was merely pointing out that I do not and that it is extremely unlikely that I ever shall. I used that example in a facetious way to demonstrate a simple point which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts. We must bear in mind that we all have our interests, by constituency, by ability and by application.
When one looks at the proposals set out in the Green Paper, it becomes clear that there has been an attempt to balance the demands upon the time and abilities of hon. Members by apportioning their appearances in this Chamber and their attendance upon committees. Also my right hon. Friend recognises the influence outside this House of the activities of select committees.
I am tempted to quote Burke. It seems the inevitable fate of every Member of Parliament to quote Burke at some stage or another, on occasions appropriate or inappropriate, but I think that in this case a quotation is relevant, when he talked about the Fourth Estate, in Parliament and pointed to the Press Gallery. We all know that much of the effect of the reports of Select Committees has been made through the Press and through the other media of communications.
I think that this is excellent, and it is certainly something which I would not wish to see disappear, because the activities of select committees were too confined, too specific or necessarily limited entirely to questions of finance and expenditure.
You asked us, Mr. Speaker, to be brief. I hope I have made my three points which I set out to make, and I hope I discern in the wording of this document, possibly reading between the lines, the intention of my right hon. Friend in this matter to remain flexible, and responsive to arguments and representations made on these matters.
§ Mr. Speaker
I remind the House that there are still a number of hon. Members keenly anxious to speak.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)
I am glad to take part in this debate, and particularly I am grateful, as a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, for the admirable exposition of its work given by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), and I should just like to say that it is a privilege for a relatively new Member like myself to have served on the Select Committee of Procedure for four and a half years with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton. If I succeed in being as interested and as lively and as zealous in reading my papers and work as hard and long as he has done in this House, I shall have done very well. I pay tribute to him for his work and for his guidance to younger members of that Committee.
Turning to the Green Paper itself, I think it is a big step forward and, on the whole, I welcome its general tenor. Of the three alternatives which the Leader of the House set out for himself—that is to say, having only a big Select Committee on Expenditure or developing the Specialist Committees solely, or having a mixture of the two—I think he has chosen the right one of the three. We need to do what the Select Committee on Procedure recommended, and that is to ensure that this House can do the job of scrutinising public expenditure properly and to develop this function as a method of elucidating the policy options open to the Government. But it would be a tragedy if in the new organisation the non-financial aspects of Government were completely passed by and if we had not kept the capacity to continue the valuable work done by some of the other Specialist Committees.
Having said that in favour of the Government's Green Paper, my objection is the same as that of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton, that proposing to cut down the Select Committee on Expenditure to a mere 45 will make it very difficult to see how the new Select Committee on Expenditure can do the job as anticipated by the Select Committee on Procedure. The idea was that blocks of Estimates would be broken down, function by function, and that the one sub-committee would be working on year after year developing expertise and explaining to the House 679 precisely the changes that were taking place in this direction or that, or the scaling up or down of levels of expenditure and the effect this would have on public policy.
I should like to put some direct questions to the Leader of the House which I hope he will answer when he winds up, because I think there is an element of confusion, over what the Leader of the House is in fact recommending on some points. I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for returning to the Chamber so that I can put these points to him directly.
On the Select Committee on Expenditure, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton raised the point as to whether we had been conceded as a normal event, a two-day debate on public expenditure. I thought that this had been granted by the last Government and was going to be carried on by their successors. I was very worried when the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton suggested there was some slight question mark on this point and I hope that any doubt about this will be dispelled.
Secondly, I would like to underline again the point made by the present Chairman of the Committee that nothing is said in the Green Paper about the long list of requests for extra information and elucidation of public expenditure proposals by the Government without which I do not think the Committee could do its job.
Thirdly, I do not know whether I heard the Leader of the House aright, but I thought I heard him say that the Select Committee on Expenditure was not going to be allowed to operate functional subcommittees under his plan, that he was not going to allow it to break down into four or five committees, each with a specialised area of the Estimates to work on so that the committees could gain expertise in those areas. I am not clear whether the right hon. Gentleman envisages putting any restriction into the terms of reference of the Expenditure Committee or whether he intends to leave the Committee free to set up its own organisation as it wishes. I see him nodding his head. It would be best if the Committee could break into seven or eight groups of about nine people each, 680 as the Select Committee on Procedure proposed, but if it is only 45 strong it will have to have much smaller subcommittees than we had originally intended. My only comment is to emphasise what the Select Committee said namely that a sub-committee of nine or eight is about right, and that size of 45 recommended in the Green Paper is not adequate to do this sort of work. Therefore, I would have thought that if the Committee is to be as the Select Committee on Procedure recommended, then there is much to be said for allowing it to be composed of more than 45, indeed of enough members to do the job.
I would echo a point made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton which I hope the right hon. Gentleman will keep in mind, that if the Select Committee on Procedure does recommend, some committee to scrutinise, taxation that this can be created. In this matter, we have the authority of an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), and, on this side, Mr. Niall MacDermot, who was formerly at the Treasury, who both said that the Government and their procedures would have been greatly aided if they had had such a Committee to look into problems of taxation and tax reform and which could look ahead at possible future taxation methods.
My next point is on staff. I just want to underline—I think every hon. Member would underline—what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said about this.
One other small point, nothing is said in this Paper about a Specialist Committee to look into the reports of the Ombudsman. I may be wrong, but I do not see it in the Green Paper. I hope it will be retained.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. It is not in the Green Paper because it was a rather different sort of Committee, but in my opening speech, as he will find, I said that it would be set up again.
§ Mr. Mackintosh
I am indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for clearing up that point directly.
I want to turn quickly to the question of whether it is possible to go further 681 and expand Committee work. There are two arguments in the Green Paper against more Committees and I think that there are weaknesses in those arguments. The first is this argument about the demand on the time of Members. I shook my head during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) when he quoted Mr. Clifford Kenyon saying that some Members could not be found to serve on Select Committees dealing with Private Bills. I quite accept that point, and I quite accept a point which somebody else made that it is sometimes hard to man Standing Committees, but in thinking of manning we should make a sharp distinction between the types of Committees, between the Standing Committees, the Select Committees on Private Bills and the Specialist Committees. I accept the point that we have got a total number of men to do the lot, but when we investigate Members' own preferences what de we find? We carried out a questionnaire survey of Labour backbenchers in the last Parliament; 150 replied, and over 90 per cent. of them wanted more Select Committee work. What we found was that Select Committees and Specialist Committees were over-subscribed. Indeed, I have seen ugly quarrels here on the Floor of the House with hon. Members saying, "Why is so-and-so on the Committee when I am not?".
I recall in the last Parliament when I was approached by a junior Whip who said, "You are on two of these committees. That is most unfair; you are hogging it; you will have to come off one." I did not want to be on two and I was prepared to share the honour, but one did get the impression that so many people were wanting to be on the committees that there had to be a rationing system. It is therefore wrong for anybody to suggest that members cannot be found to go on Select Committees. The evidence is that Members want to do this kind of work but do not want to do some other kinds of work. Chief Whips do have a manning problem but it arises when Members use their service on specialist committees as an argument for not serving on Standing Committees because they find this latter variety of committee a classic bore.
682 The ideas of the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) on this subject were refreshing. He proposed that we should look at the whole question of whether the Standing Committee side of legislation is sensibly organised. I have communicated to the Leader of the House my feeling that the experience of Government Members dumped on a Committee about which they know nothing is a humiliating one. A Member is told that he is a legislator and he is sent to a Standing Committee dealing with a Bill about which he knows nothing. He sits outside in the corridor trying to dictate letters to his secretary and nipping into the Committee when the Division bell rings—
§ Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)
Is my hon. Friend saying that work on a Standing Committee is not central to the whole functioning of Parliament? He seems to be arguing that the appointment of Select Committees means that this work is shelved on to the shoulders of other full-time working Members of the House. If he is arguing that, I suggest that he will find many hon. Members on this side of the House and no doubt on the other side who have much to say against that practice.
§ Mr. Mackintosh
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he is jumping on me a little too soon. I am not making either of these points. I am saying that the whole procedure of Public Bill legislation means that one often hears the same thing said at three or four stages—Second Reading, Committee, Clause stand part, Report and Third Reading. I am wondering whether there could not be some economy of effort in this matter. There is no suggestion that one is not willing to do one's share, but is it necessary to have this amount of concentration on a Bill after the Government have made up their mind, as opposed to more concentration on the more interesting, earlier, exploratory stages? No one will accuse those of us who have worked in Committees of not doing our share, but one wonders whether Members' time could not be more profitably used at an earlier stage, so that they would not feel that they are redundant, particularly if they are Government back benchers, who are needed in body but not in mind. Certainly this is the feeling I often had when I was placed on a Standing Committee.
683 I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) will not think I am making any attempt to shelve any hard work. I am merely attempting to get the work of the House arranged so that it engages the interest and attention of Members more fully than it sometimes does. I have talked about the demand on the time of Members—
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
May I emphasise that Mr. Clifford Kenyon assumed that the problem of manning could not be separated into different parts. He had to find people for Standing Committees, Select Committees, Private Bill Committees and Private Member's Bill Committees, and he is arguing that in the end he had to do some of this work himself although he was extremely overworked.
§ Mr. Mackintosh
That is exactly what I said. The total job has to be done and Whips may not be able to separate the manning difficulties in their minds. But if there is a big demand for Committee work of type A and no demand for Committee work of type B, there may be a case for scaling down B and increasing A.
The second argument against an expansion of Select Committees adduced in the Green Paper is that this might constitute a danger to the central activity on the Floor of the House if committees are expanded too much. One way of putting this argument is to say that a Member cannot be in two places at once; if he is upstairs he cannot be on the Floor of the House. This is an excellent argument, but there is no reason why specialist committees should not sit in the morning or after 5 p.m. The conflict really only arises if committee work drew people from the Floor of the House at the key point of political excitement, between 2.30 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. Provided the committees avoid that time I cannot seriously imagine that they would interfere with the activities of the Floor of the House when, as we know there are normally only about 25 or 30 hon. Members present. After 5 p.m. it cannot be said that the Chamber or a Committee are the choices at that time. If a Member is not in the Chamber he is doing other work in his office or out of the House. If it is a debate in which a 684 Member is not interested he does regard it as a choice of being in the House or sitting on a Select Committee; it is the Committee or other duties away from the Chamber.
Some other criticisms have been made of Select Committees in this debate. One is that the reports of Select Committees are seldom debated. The old-fashioned view of a Select Committee was to give it a specific job which it worked on. It produced recommendations and a report. The report was put before the House and the Select Committee was cross if the House did not look at it and the Government did not take notice of it. This is not the kind of Specialist Select Committee that this Green Paper is talking about. We are talking about a continuing committee which turns from task to task. We are talking about an attempt to build up knowledge and information among Members, about attempts to raise the quality of debate, and there is the whole value of the activity of the Committee in pressing the Government by bringing members of the Government, civil servants and outside experts into touch and pressing them to explain their objectives. It is the actual activity of the Committee that produces these results. The older approach that a Select Committee had a specific job to do and would report and the report would be debated seems to me to be a mistaken view now.
I readily accept that hon. Members often ask in Business Questions whether there will be a debate on a particular report so that they can refer to the shocking neglect of the Government on this matter and this is the normal parliamentary practice, but this does not detract from the fact that the debating of the report is not the important matter; what matters is the activity which led to the report.
Then there is the criticism about the political effect of the committees. There is a curious duality in these criticisms. The hon. Members for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) and Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) in the past have said that committees lead to consensus politics; they lead people to work together. On the other hand hon. Members on the Government side tonight have said that the committees might go into policy and get too contentious. In fact committees do not and should not do that. Their 685 work should consist of unravelling the information, teasing out the policy problems, revealing the options and the direction of the Government so that the House can take the material and then have a big political clash about the issue.
I recall arguing the case for Select Committees with a distinguished hon. Member of the House who has in his day delivered great philippics against the Government and asking him whether, in his great attacks, he would not have preferred to have had more material and more information on which to work. The gentleman in question said, "I have never needed facts yet; I do not see why I should need them now". This is a no doubt laudable but old-fashioned approach and we should not dwell too much on it. If there is criticism nowadays of the House it is that we do not have sufficient information, that we have insufficient expertise in the House as compared with the Government and we should take action to correct this.
My last point relates to the future of this experiment. Will the Leader of the House consider this? The most fundamentally odd and humiliating aspect is that it is up to the Government to decide how the House organises itself. At present, it is up to the Government to decide how many committees there shall be, to lay a Green Paper and to make up their mind. It is up to the Government, through the usual channels, to choose the members and chairmen and to arrange the entire procedure. Is it not time to evolve a procedure in which the House decided about its own organisation? Let the Government govern; let them make up their mind on their decisions.
It may seem inappropriate even to mention it, but I have just come back from three days in the Bundestag looking at its committe procedure. The great strength of it is that there is a party organisation for each party elected by the party which determines the committee organisation of the House. The members do not have to get it handed to them, good or bad, by the Government. In the case of the right hon. Gentleman introdusing this Green Paper, we may be well off but we should not have it handed to us by the Government.
The House should be encouraged to organise itself, arrange its own secretarial 686 assistance, its own facilities, and act as a counterpoise to Government. I believe that this is in the spirit of the modern approach to administration; that one needs counterveiling forces. If we have an adequate counterpoise to Government in the House we shall not only get a better House of Commons, we shall also be better governed.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Mr. R. Bonner Pink (Portsmouth, South)
I join issue with the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian) (Mr. Mackintosh) on the size of committees. Judging from past experience, we have quite a large choice in the matter, with Select Committees of 13 to 18, nine or so members on the sub-committees of the Estimates Committee, and possibly five on the sub-committees of the proposed Expenditure Committee.
The crux of the matter is not the size of the committee but the number of its members that regularly attend. It is far far better to have a small number attending regularly than a large number who attend only irregularly, because in the latter case some people attend one day and the next day there is a different crowd, and the committee lacks cohesion. It is far better to have a small committee of people interested in the subject.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome the Green Paper as a step forward. It consolidates the various experiments of the past and improves them.
My experience is limited, but I have been a member of the Estimates Committee for some time. I think that most members of that Committee will agree—there is no doubt that the chairman does—that its terms of reference should have been studied and extended.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) that there are still inadequate means of investigating Government expenditure. The Estimates Committee was misnamed. During my service on it it never acted as I would expect an estimates committee to act. My idea of such a committee is one that examines the estimates in detail before they are presented and then makes recommendations.
§ Mr. Willey
My intervention relates to the size of committees. Surely that depends on what the Committee is doing? We must think about what the Committee 687 is to do. If the hon. Gentleman is thinking about a Committee going right across the board, a very large Committee will be needed, because that cannot be done by a few people. Equally, if he is thinking about a particular subject, I can tell him that mine was a Select Committee of 13, which happened to be right in our case, but we covered subjects which made it necessary to appoint sub-committees. We had to have a large enough number to have sub-committees, for otherwise we could not have carried out the inquiry within a Session. That is one of the real difficulties about such committees.
§ Mr. Pink
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The point is that an estimates committee should investigate estimates in great depth and detail before they are presented. I was about to add that I could never imagine any Government agreeing to such a procedure.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the size of Committees. It is far better to have a large-ish committee with a considerable number of small, active sub-committees. What I am against is a large committee which is largely inactive. The right hon. Gentleman's Committee needed sub-committees. The Expenditure Committee is envisaged as a large committee of 45, but I take it that the sub-committees will consist of only five members each.
The Estimates Committee has been much more involved with the examination of organisation, methods, procedure and so on of Government Departments. I am glad that that examination is to be enlarged, because it has been too narrow.
The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) said that he was sorry that the departmental Committees would go. But surely if we have functional Committees or subject Committees they must include departmental Committees? If one is investigating a whole subject one will be investigating a Department at the same time. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the larger contains the smaller, or the narrower.
I welcome the fact that Ministers may be questioned on their policy. It has been unfortunate that when we have wanted questions answered only an official has been present, and he cannot speak on policy.
688 The Select Committee on Procedure recommended an Expenditure Committee of about 80, with about half serving on functional sub-committees and the other half serving on a general sub-committee. The duties of that sub-committee were outlined in the report. The proposal in the Green Paper is a committee of 45. I am not quite clear whether my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons has accepted the Committee on Procedure's suggested list of sub-committees. If he has, it would give eight sub-committees. I am also not clear whether he has accepted the idea of a general sub-committee. If he has, that would be a ninth, giving five members on each committee. Or is he envisaging the Committee as a whole undertaking the tasks of the general sub-committee as outlined by the Select Committee on Procedure?
The Green Paper repeats the list of subjects for sub-committees but contains no other proposals, so I am in the dark as to whether my right hon. Friend has in mind that the sub-committee should cover those subjects or that other committees should do so. I hope that he will not draw the terms of reference for the new Expenditure Committee too tightly, and that he will not be too rigid, so that the committee can choose what subjects it thinks should be investigated. Circumstances may well change from time to time; so it needs to be reasonably flexible. I hope that in that way the Expenditure Committee will improve on the working of the Estimates Committee.
The Green Paper outlines the history of Select Committees and proposes that the Committees on Race Relations, Scottish Affairs and Nationalised Industries should be retained. The need to keep the number of members on select committees to a minimum has been emphasised several times today, but those three committees require about 45 members, in addition to the Expenditure Committee, which makes a requirement of 90. Yet my right hon. Friend has rejected the suggested composition of 80 for the Expenditure Committee as recommended by the Select Committee on Procedure. Those other three Committees could all be wound up and their work allocated to the sub-committees of the Expenditure Committee. I appreciate that the Race 689 Relations, Scottish Affairs and Nationalised Industries Committees are all engaged on investigations, but it may well be that we should follow the procedure suggested for overeas aid and that Committees should be appointed to finish the job and then be disbanded.
The Green Paper envisages, the Race Relations and Scottish Affairs Committees continuing for this Parliament, but surely they will not be needed for as long as that? The race relations problem is extremely delicate and difficult, but once the committee has reported its findings the other two bodies which have already been set up will surely continue to deal with the matter on a day-to-day basis. I can see no need for a Race Relations Committee after it has made its report, unless circumstances change, when it could be reappointed. With those two other Committes of we have the Race Relations Committee sitting as well, there could be duplication and overlapping without benefit to anyone.
Scottish affairs are also an extremely delicate matter. I hardly dare speak of them, although I had three years in Scotland during the war and perhaps might be considered as a half-adopted Scot. But I believe that a sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee would again be appropriate, or we could even have an extension of the duties of the Scottish Grand Committee, although I appreciate that that committee functions quite differently.
§ Mr. Lawson
Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that once a report has been made all the problems go away, and that there is no reason why we should continue looking at them?
§ Mr. Pink
I am not suggesting that for a moment, but I am suggesting that when a committee has, as the Estimates Committee has, investigated a problem in depth, there is probably no need for it to go back over the same problem, because we hope that it has found solutions, and that there is no need to return to that subject again for a time. I am not suggesting that it need never go back again.
The Green Paper also envisages the Overseas Aid Committee being reappointed to finish the job which it has already started. I remind the Lord President of the Council that several sub- 690 committees of the Estimates Committee have also done a considerable amount of work at great cost in time and money. I hope that their work will not be lost. I hope that in some way their work can be picked up and completed.
I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in calling for more help for Select Committees. Specialist advisers are now allowed. My experience is that they are of great value.
But there is a further point—expenses. The sub-committee of the Estimates Committee on which I have been serving has been examining the affairs of the British Council. In order to produce a proper report it is obviously necessary that its work in other countries should be examined on the ground. Yet, as the chairman knows, there was considerable difficulty in getting an appropriation allowed for travelling expenses and so on to enable the members of the sub-committee to visit Germany, Nigeria and Ethiopia. We should have visited other countries as well. We visited the two ends, but not the middle. Funds were just not available. I ask my right hon. Friend to examine this matter. I suggest that the estimates need not be so rigid for the overall amount allowed to all Select Committees for travelling expenses.
I agree with hon. Members who have stressed that the value of the reports of Select Committees and sub-committees depends largely on the time devoted to them in this House. If they are debated in this House they receive more attention and get more publicity. I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that in future more Government time is available for debating these reports.
I believe that the proposals in the Green Paper will have the effect of making the reports of these Committees of more interest to more hon. Members because they will widen the scope of the reports themselves. I hope, therefore, that in future we shall get not only more debates but better debates. I have pleasure in supporting the Green Paper.
§ 7.43 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)
I confess that I find this debate deeply depressing not only so far as attendance is concerned but also because I find these 691 non-party, non-political occasions uncomfortable. The adrenalin does not flow as quickly as it should. This kind of consensus politics is like political homo-sexuality—just as distasteful and to be avoided as often as possible.
The House shows a singular lack of interest in its own affairs. This might be an argument in support of the views put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) and others, who said that this kind of consensus politics is the death of virulent political democracy.
We accept the need for more detailed scrutiny and examination in depth of public expenditure and the policies on which it is based. To that extent the Estimates Committee, as constituted and with its present terms of reference, has out-lived its usefulness because it is policies which decide the expenditure, and it is policies which we ought to discuss. I have long taken the view that if investigating committees are to have any control of public expenditure, they must be able to influence the policy decision from which the expenditure flows.
I have never believed that there is much in the argument, which the Leader of the House has expressed from time to time, that the growth of these committees, either in size or in number or both, whether they are Specialist or Select Committees, would or could detract from the status of the Chamber.
I like the atmosphere which can be built up in the Chamber. Clearly, this must, and will, remain the centre of the political forum—the centre of the stage. All that we are doing with the aid of these committees is trying to improve the props. We are trying to improve and increase the information on which hon. Members can do battle with each other on party political lines, if need be. Therefore, I do not believe there is any conflict between the demands made by the Chamber for political conflict and the requirements of Select Committees.
It is true that when committee reports are debated in this House, as the Green Paper fairly says, there is singularly little interest shown in them. I have sometimes had the rôle of going around hijacking hon. Members into the Chamber to keep a debate going. That may partly be the 692 responsibility of members of the committees, because they think that they have a prerogative to speak in debates on the reports of committees on which they have served. I think that there ought to be a self-denying ordinance: that when a committee report is subsequently debated in the House the members of that committee should preclude themselves and make known that they will not be taking part in the debate. In that way we might get more interest shown in the debates than hitherto.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) that it is not necessarily all-important that the reports should be debated. The main purpose of the reports, as I see it, is to scrutinise what the Executive are doing and to provide infinitely greater information not only for this House but also to experts outside, to public opinion formers of the Press and radio and all the mass communications systems. But there are occasions—
§ Mr. Hamilton
I will give way to my hon. Friend in a few moments. There are some reports which it is essential to debate in the House. Looking at the Appendix to the Green Paper we see the numbers of reports which have been produced. I will quote the figures later to put the point in perspective. Nobody loses because some of those reports are not debated in the House, but there are others which it is important should be debated. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) feels strongly about the massive report from the Scottish Select Committee. It was, and still is, of crucial importance that that report should be debated in this House.
When right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite took office they said that there was to be less government but better government.
§ Mr. Lawson
My hon. Friend is going beyond the point he made upon which I wished to question him. The point he made was that, as he saw it, the principal purpose of Select Committees should be to provide information upon which hon. Members could do all the better battle with each other in this Chamber. 693 Yet he went on to say that the members of those committees should exclude themselves from the debates on the committees' reports. I cannot understand the argument being advanced by my hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Hamilton
That does not necessarily follow. One reason, though perhaps not the most important one, why debates on Select Committee reports are so poorly attended is that the average back bench Member thinks that the debate will be monopolised by the members of the committee concerned. If that illusion were disposed of we might get a better attendance.
One other reason why they are so poorly attended is that so often they are not controversial and are not likely to result in a Division. The result is that hon. Members disappear. They say "There will be no vote at ten o'clock. They are in a nice cosy little coterie in the Chamber. I shall go home, or go to my digs, or go to a show in London. Why bother with those silly goats who are debating the report, which I have read and find interesting, but which does not warrant my sitting in the Chamber until 10 o'clock?" That is one reason why they do not attend, but it is not a good reason why we should not have these committees.
The important reason for having a committee is not so much the debate that results in the House from its report, but the influence that it should, and does, have on the Government by making their civil servants and, under the proposals in the Green Paper, the Ministers concerned come to the committees. It puts them on their mettle to justify the policy decisions that they are making.
I agree almost wholly with the sentiments expressed in paragraph 18 of the Green Paper about the reorientation of the work of the Estimates Committee and its strengthening in terms of numbers of staff and the terms of reference. I say "almost wholly agree" with the sentiments in that paragraph, because I am inclined to disagree with the latter part of it. Where it talks about the need to retain the Specialist Committees on Nationalised Industries, Science and Technology, Scottish Affairs and Race Relations. My view is that they should all go. With the possible exception of the Public Accounts Committee, which deals 694 with a separate function, I think that the whole lot could be encompassed in a series of new committees, or an extension of what is now the Estimates Committee, to be called by whatever name one likes.
It seems to me that there is no reason why all that work should not be done under one umbrella. If it is not, we shall run into difficulties of co-ordination and of overlap, which we did not have in the Estimates Committee precisely because we had a co-ordinating sub-committee to see that that kind of overlap and duplication did not occur.
If that view were accepted, it would mean increasing the number of members in the full committee. I have a figure in my notes, but it could be as flexible as the figure of 45 suggested by the right hon. Gentleman. In my judgment the right hon. Gentleman's figure is far too low for the job that I have in mind. I suggest about 57, and I do so deliberately, because I am working on the principle of having eight sub-committees of seven Members. I think that one can argue about the size of a sub-committee. I think that one can make it too small, with the resulting problem of finding a quorum. The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) is right. I used to chase around trying to get a quorum, and then the clerk would say to me, "You, as the chairman, will have to come yourself and make it three", and I had to sit there until such time as some other member of the committee came along to make the quorum.
If, on the other hand, we make the sub-committee too large—and nine is too high a figure—and there is a domineering chairman—I am casting no aspersions, but the members of a sub-committee of the Estimates Committee were dominated by a chairman who tended to monopolise the questions, with the result that the other members wondered whether there was any point in their sitting silent in the committee, and so they walked out—we run into difficulties. One has to strike a balance. The chairman has a rôle to play. He must bring the other members of the committee into the inquiry. He must allow them to question Ministers or civil servants who might be before the committee. The general view of the House is that 45 is far too low a figure and ought to be increased.
695 Under my proposition sub-committee A of the Estimates Committee—that is to say, the co-ordinating committee—might consist of the eight chairmen of the sub-committees that I have mentioned plus, perhaps, six additional outside members. The function of that committee would be largely that recommended by the Select Committee on Procedure; that is to say it would not only co-ordinate the activities of the eight sub-committees but would have a long look at the five-year rolling programme of public expenditure. It would investigate the White Paper on Public Expenditure, and its report would be followed by the two-day debate about which some hon. Members have spoken. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us a firm undertaking tonight that as an annual and major event in the parliamentary calendar there will be a two-day debate on the report from this sub-committee about which I am talking on the White Paper on Public Expenditure.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman and the Government have come round to the view that all Ministers should be subjected to scrutiny, investigation and examination by these sub-committees. I wonder what the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had to say about that, because when he spoke at the Tory Party conference he said just the opposite. He said that he did not want industry and the nationalised industries to be interfered with by busybodies in Parliament. One of the main points about the public ownership of industries is that there should be greater public accountability.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
I did not see the hon. Gentleman at Blackpool, but I was there. As I recall it, what my right hon. Friend meant was the disengagement of the nationalised industries mainly from Whitehall interference rather than from Westminster interference. That was the point.
§ Mr. Hamilton
If the right hon. Gentleman meant that, I accept the correction, but I did not get that impression. The impression that I got, and it has been voiced by certain executives in the nationalised industries themselves, is that they have had to spend far too much time being cross-examined and providing 696 papers for select committees of the House. I think that that is a price that has to be paid if there are publicly-owned industries.
The question of staffing has been raised. We can provide as much machinery as we like, but if there is not the staff and the physical accommodation to do the job that machinery is no good. For long enough we have battled for a separate room for the chairman of each sub-committee. I think that we have made some progress, but we have not so far won a complete victory.
Another point to be considered is that raised by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Pink), who spoke about providing money to enable these committees to travel, both at home and abroad. As the liaison committee, we had great difficulty in trying to allocate the money provided by the Treasury as expenses for travel abroad, principally by the select committees. I got the impression, though I may be wrong, that committees tended to muscle in to get the first bite at the cherry because they felt that if they left their demands on the fund too late they would not get their trip abroad. I would be the last person in the world to say that these are jaunts abroad. If these committees are to do their work properly there will have to be a much bigger allocation of public money, subject, of course, to suitable control, to cover their necessary travel and other expenses.
The former Member for Birmingham, Northfield, Mr. Chapman, who was Chairman of the Procedure Committee, told me on one occasion that he had incurred considerable expense in entertaining witnesses who had come from all parts of the United Kingdom to give evidence to his Committee. There is no provision for giving witnesses a cup of tea, or something stronger, in this House. Witnesses might have come all the way down from Scotland. I remember a group of teachers who came to the House to give evidence to the Select Committee on Education, and there was no provision for giving them any refreshment. No doubt many hon. Members have had the experiences of having to entertain witnesses at their own expense. Such an item cannot even be charged as a taxable expense. This is indefensible and I hope that the Leader of the House will pay attention to it.
697 Some comment has been made about how hon. Members use their time in the House. I consider that time and the cult of amateurism are the twin enemies of adequate control of the Executive by the Legislature. Ministers and civil servants may dislike the added inconvenience of public accountability implied in the proposals in the Green Paper. The House of Commons should not be oversensitive to the convenience and comfort of Ministers. No Government exists for Ministers' convenience, and this is an important consideration. Government exists for the welfare of the people as a whole, and it must be increasingly accountable to the elected representatives of the people.
The process can never be satisfactorily achieved by the rhetorical pyrotechnics or the soap-box opera, as some people might describe it, that take place on the Floor of the House. I have enjoyed taking part in some of it myself. I am not an expert, but I do my best. However, this is not the most effective way of bringing the Government to account. We have our fun in the House but in the end the Government get their own way. The investigatory process can be carried out most effectively only by reducing such displays, while not dispensing with them altogether, but by having, in addition, the hard grind of interrogation of Ministers and civil servants in depth in committee. The House itself has never been the instrument of control or scrutiny in depth of the Executive. That is a matter for the hard grind of a select committee.
I do not accept the view that there is no shortage of hon. Members who are prepared to undertake Select Committee work. There is a shortage. At the beginning of a Parliament, many hon. Members come forward and say, "I would like to be on a Select Committee", but once the committees are set up they rarely attend. We must be under no illusion that there is a great shortage of hon. Members prepared to do the work. They may put down their names because it may be thought to be a status symbol, but they must be prepared to do some damned hard work, out of the public eye.
I do not see that there should be a conflict between the setting-up of Select Committees and work on the Floor of the House. The two go in tandem. If I have any reservations about the Green Paper, 698 it is that its proposals are not ambitious enough and do not go far enough.
§ 8.5 p.m.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
I apologise for not being present for a period earlier in this debate. As a relative new Member I hesitate to take part in the debate at all, particularly as I have never served on a Select Committee, but I would add my voice to the general support given to the proposals put forward by the Lord President. They represent a sensible compromise, and they will be an important step in making our Parliamentary democracy work better and be seen to do so. I suspect that newer Members of Parliament on both sides of the House are overwhelmingly in favour of an extension of the Select Committee system on the lines now proposed.
I believe that this system will strike a good balance between the Chamber and Committee work, though only experience will show. As the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) pointed out, these are two sides of the same coin.
The Chamber must remain the centre of our life here, and it seems to be assuming an even greater importance so far in this Parliament which I hope will be maintained. It must be complemented by the kind of scrutiny in depth that can only be carried out in some form of committee away from the Chamber. The Select Committees have already shown their value, and I think they will grow still more valuable in future as they develop on the lines set out in the Green Paper. They have a particular purpose in providing an additional check on the Executive, and they are also important as an extra channel of communication to this place, through which more outside views and experience can be brought to bear by the experts who give evidence before Committees.
I should like to mention three of the Select Committees. I mention first the Expenditure Committee, on which I sense most uncertainty among those who have taken part in the debate. I see it as a problem of the wood and the trees. I hope the outcome will not be that nearly all the work of the Expenditure Committee is confined to the particular functions in which sub-committees may specialise. 699 The Committee should be able to spend some of its time spread over the boundaries of the different functions in trying to relate policies in one sphere to policies in another. The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) raised the question of a taxation Committee. I certainly hope that somewhere in the Committee structure it will be possible for Members to go in depth into the problem of negative income tax. When the Expenditure Committee is set up I urge that it should be allowed the maximum freedom to decide its own sub-committees and its own method of working.
I welcome the commitment to reappoint the Commitee on Race Relations and Immigration so that it may continue throughout the whole Parliament. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Pink), because I believe it of the highest importance that there should be a Select Committee of the House throughout this Parliament able to carry out an informed investigation and to comment on this vital problem.
The third Committee to which I should like to draw attention is the Committee on Education which, we understand, is no longer to exist in its previous form since its work is to be transferred to the new inquiry into teacher training. I would not agree with the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) that it might be possible to combine the Education Committee with the Committee on Science and Technology. This would involve too wide a subject matter for a single Committee. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend will keep an open mind about having an Education Committee functioning as well.
I turn to three of the problems that we face. The first is the linkage between the House as a whole and Select Committees. I agree with hon. Members who have said that the work of Select Committees has a value regardless of whether it is debated here. But allowing for that, we have not been given enough time—certainly in the last Parliament, which has been the only one I have experienced—to debate select committee reports.
700 Two examples of this were the Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries on the Ministerial Control of Nationalised Industries and the Report of the Committee on Education on Student Relations. Both Reports raised matters of great general importance to hon. Members, on which a debate in the Chamber would have supplemented the work of those Select Committees. I hope that the Government will carry out their pledge to introduce less legislation, so enabling us to have more time in the Chamber to discuss some of these highly important reports.
There is, secondly, the problem of the location of select committees. To what extent does my right hon. Friend envisage select committees continuing to meet, where necessary, away from London? There was the unnerving experience of a sub-committee on education meeting at Essex University in the last Parliament, and I am not suggeting that we have a sort of touring circus of hon. Members. But some select committees should be ready and equipped to hold their hearings in public in different parts of the country. This could play a valuable part in what we all want to see, which is bringing Parliament still closer to the people.
The third problem is how we, individual hon. Members, can do a better job as members of committees, and I support what has been said about having stronger staffing for select committees. However, one faces the perpetual difficulty—and in the three years that I have been here it has been one of the least satisfactory features of the life—that on many issues on which one must form a view or deliver a speech, one is having to be too superficial.
If we are to make a success of this new, more elaborate, committee system, I hope that my right hon. Friend will keep in mind the need for still further improvement in the facilities available to hon. Members. I am glad that he is not proposing any change in our salaries at present. I appreciate what has happened in the last few years, towards better facilities. I do not suggest an elaborate apparatus of staff and office for each hon. Member on the lines of some legislatures overseas. However, as a reasonably modest step forward—I 701 hope it will be taken in this Parliament—so that we can do our work more adequately both in the Chamber and in committees, we should each of us have one whole-time secretary, who might also do research work. That would enable us to make better use of our time and a better contribution to our committee and other work.
I welcome the greater degree of permanence in the establishment of these committees. They are to last for a whole Parliament and that will greatly increase the value of their work and its impact on the Government and public opinion. Clearly this is to be an interim arrangement, and we will see in the next few years how it works in practice. I believe that it will prove a good experiment and I welcome the implication in what my right hon. Friend said, and from what is in the Green Paper, that the Government intend to let it run for a whole Parliament with the main shape of the experiment unaltered. I have no doubt, however, that there will be detailed changes Session by Session.
I hope that we will end this Parliament with the feeling that we are doing our job markedly better than in the previous Parliament. I am confident that select committees on the lines proposed will contribute substantially to that feeling.
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)
I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) will forgive me if I do not comment on the aspects to which he referred, for I wish to return to some of the points that were raised earlier, and particularly to the attitude which was struck by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) and others, an attitude with which I am not in agreement.
It seems that too much stress is being laid on the word "expertise". My hon. Friend spoke as though groups of hon. Members would be formed for the duration of their parliamentary lives into committees and sub-committees so that they could gradually become experts in whatever subjects they were examining. I am the last person to doubt the need for experts, but I suggest that we need more than expertise in examining the many problems which we face.
702 We need not become expert chemists or engineers, or obtain degrees in scientific and technological subjects to do a sound job in this place. We need to be experts at representing our constituents and in dealing with the various services and functions for which the Government are responsible. We must ensure that those functions are running smoothly, and when possible, improve them.
We read in paragraph 9 of the White Paper that these committees will have terms of reference enabling them'To consider the activities of Departments of State concerned with'"—whatever subjects are being examined'to examine the efficiency with which they are administered.'That seems to be larger in scope than even the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) had in mind. Indeed, it appears to go further than the expertise with which my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) was concerned.
I see no reason why we need all become financial experts to consider financial matters or why we need examine, as though we were looking into a deal on the Stock Exchange, every item of financial policy. For this reason I would like to see added after the words'to examine the efficiency with which they are administered'".the simple words "and the humanity with which they are being administered" This may sound trite, but it is possible for something to be run efficiently but almost soullessly. Our primary concern should be to ensure that the policies of the Government are carried out not just with the maximum efficiency and the minimum waste of public money but with the maximum concern for the individual citizen.
With the passage of time the State is becoming more and more involved in more and more aspects of our everyday lives. This problem is confronting civilised society throughout the world. We must ensure that the State does not become more authoritarian. I need not mention how frequently hon. Members speak of the dangers of bureaucracy. We must develop institutions and practices, and train men and women, to ensure that the rights and freedoms of the individual are safeguarded and protected.
703 There is, on the one hand, the Executive. On the other hand, there is Parliament. Let us forget the parties. An hon. Member has the job of representing people. There are many niceties to representation. Representation should become a highly skilled job. We want increasing adequacy in representation. It is not a question only of the individual, but the individual hon. Member should be equipped for his job in the sense of the support that can come from the organs that provide him with information—for example, the development of the research department of the Library. An hon. Member, by being better enabled to do his job, is better able to advance the interests of the ordinary people.
This does not mean that small groups should hive themselves off for long periods to examine intricate scientific questions. We all want to be informed laymen. There is a danger that hon. Members who become experts will cease to be able to perform their primary function.
I start from the concept of the paramountcy of the Chamber. It is not a Chamber that is always characterised by consensus. The arguments that divide us so often should not be taken into committees. I am happy to see committees working as harmoniously as they can. I want to see the divisions take place in the Chamber. I should be unhappy if my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West lost the virility with which he so often presents his arguments. The real divisions cannot properly be advanced anywhere except in the Chamber. Even if the Chamber is virtually empty, as it is now, that does not detract from its importance.
I profoundly disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), who seemed to think that the Chamber was important only on occasions of highlights. The Chamber is the focal point. It is here, even when only a few hon. Members are present, that the combined weight of Members can be massed and utilised, if necessary, against the Executive. If that kind of thing were being done outside the Chamber, to that extent the standing and power of the Chamber as the focal point of the lives of the people would be undermined.
704 Let us not be modest. We are not making claims for our individual selves. The rôle of the Member, as distinct from that of a member of the Government, is as the spokesman for people. He is get-at-able. An official can send a letter and, even though people may complain, they can never reach him. People can always reach a Member and can sack him if they do not like him.
We must think in terms of a Society in which there is more and more government involvement. The increasing degree of government involvement must be countered by the highly skilled representative.
I differ from my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian in that I do not want there to be too many Select Committees. With others I have had the job of manning Standing Committees and I know how difficult a job it is. I have often had to put a willing horse on to two and sometimes three Standing Committees which have been functioning simultaneously. I have often felt a grudge that some of my hon. Friends serving on Select Committees, which were perhaps meeting in the morning when the Standing Committees were meeting, could not serve on Standing Committee because they were serving on a Select Committee.
In Standing Committee a Member is doing a primary job. The job might be that of opposing the Government. Even if some hon. Members believe that they are wasting their time arguing about some point, when we battle on something that is of real imporance to people our means of battling and of representing those for whom we think we stand may often be that of delaying the Government or wasting time, as some people would think.
We cannot apply to parliamentary activity the slide rule measure of efficiency. It is necessary to think in terms of its being a battle on many occasions. If we did not have the battle here, the battle might take place by means of petrol bombs.
The first great primary protection that ordinary people have is the existence of free democratic parties—the sometimes much despised party system, but one which produces an alternative Government. The Government of the day know that on the other side there are people ready and only too anxious to take over 705 from them. Another protection is the possibility that Members, irrespective of party, may upon occasion combine and defeat the Government or compel them to do things that they do not want to do. There is always the knowledge that the Government plus Parliament can compel action by civil servants in the background and control the whole of the State apparatus and bureaucracy.
Select Committees and Standing Committees are part and parcel of the whole business. However, Select Committees should not be allowed to become too involved and should not be expected to be too expert in, say, scientific matters. Their members should aim at being skilled in questioning witnesses and perhaps in criticising a report, because normally it is not the Members who draft a report. We need skilled people drafting the reports, skilled people backing us, for example, in disentangling an involved question or, perhaps, in elucidating the kind of examination which might be carried on.
That sort of thing should be done. It being done, we can on that basis fulfil our proper function, and fulfil it in increasing measure, for this must be a continuing process. It is part and parcel of our society here as well as of society in other countries, those which we call the advanced countries and those, perhaps, not so advanced, too. The problem is one of protecting individual and minority rights and liberties in the face of ever-growing State involvement. It is a complex and involved problem. We are at the root of it here, and part and parcel of the apparatus which we are now discussing is the means by which we can the better fulfil our function of representing our people and protecting them where their interests—not necessarily because some person deliberately wishes to abuse power—are affected or infringed.
With that function in mind, I feel that what is put before us in the Green Paper is well worth our support. Nevertheless, I felt it right to say that if expertise should be our concern, the expertise we should develop is that called for in a representative of the people.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)
I think that, like the few survivors on both benches, I have heard every speech 706 since the debate began, and I find it hard now to say anything original or new. I find a difference, however, between the debate today and the last debate on the subject which I studied, which came in the previous Parliament when we had a debate on, I think, the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure as it then stood.
As I recall it, on that occasion most hon. Members present were much in favour of the proposals of the Select Committee on Procedure. The balance has changed now—there are other hon. Members present—and, if anything, the weight of the argument seems to have swung the other way. For that reason, I was glad to hear the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) and of my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh), because they at least did something to restore the balance of the debate. I confess, however, that I am still of opinion, like the majority of hon. Members who have spoken today, that, on the whole, the proposals for immediate advance put forward in the Green Paper are the soundest.
At one stage, I thought that the Green Paper, when it arrived, might be restrictive. As did my hon. Friend. I paid attention to some curious remarks made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry at the Conservative Party Conference. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) is not present now, for he denied that the Secretary of State used the word "Parliament". In fact, he did. I have taken the trouble to obtain the official record issued by the Conservative Party, and the right hon. Gentleman's speech is here. He made the astonishing statement thatParliament … cannot continually have rights of scrutiny and questionover publicly owned industries.
Admittedly, the right hon. Gentleman in question is learning by experience. At that time, he was at the pre-fish or pre-duck stage; he is now working down the parliamentary menu and finding that, perhaps, it is not all as simple as it seemed when he was director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. I do not want to be too unkind, because we all have to live and learn, but the House of Commons has been in existence 707 for rather longer than the Confederation of British Industry, and it is as well, shall I say, that industrialists, when they come into the House, should try to understand that what we do here has, perhaps, more meaning than they imagine from outside. In any case, the late Lord Morrison, a considerable Parliamentarian, at one stage held roughly the same view, that there should not be any direct Parliamentary check on publicly owned industries; that the managers who served them would not like it much. But that was well in the past.
The right of the House of Commons to scrutinise and check is absolute, because the House represents the whole of the people, not any one section. How far it exercises its powers is a different question. It varies with the times and needs. The instruments it uses can vary and the balance between them change. I do not think that any hon. Member who has spoken today challenges the duty of the House of Commons to make the Executive, in all its aspects, accountable. That is one purpose of the party system as we have developed it. But opinions differ on how it is to be done. It is no good making automatic comparisons with the United States.
As Chairman of the Select Committee on Science and Technology I had the privilege of going to Washington. I visited the rather lavish apartments of the Joint Committee of Congress on Atomic Energy. They were very impressive. I do not know whether they have coats of arms in the United States, but they have crests, and there was an enormous crest outside the door of the Joint Committee; we knew that we had arrived. A vast establishment of staff is attached to the Joint Committee. Sometimes it watches, sometimes checks, and sometimes obstructs the President's Commission for Atomic Energy. That is its duty. Under the American system it must employ a staff of experts equal in capacity and knowledge in most respects to the experts on the Atomic Energy Commission. They may have taken things almost to an absurdity: there are two vast professional bureaucracies watching each other.
I do not know whether that system is good or bad, but it reflects the nature of the American Constitution, which is very 708 different from ours. It elects the Executive separately from the Legislature. Ours does not. That is a fact which must be accepted. When we elect a House of Commons, we provide at the same time the Executive, and it would not be a Government unless it controlled the majority in the House.
Therefore, the working of the Select Committees in the House is, in the nature of things, an operation of some delicacy. Chairman of Select Committees—and I can speak with some feeling on this matter; this is not always realised by every hon. Member—need to be diplomats of some skill. I could tell some stories about the problems which I have had with the more emotional and temperamental Ministers of my own party. A great deal goes on under the surface which is fascinating if one is part of it, but it is not always seen from outside.
Working the Select Committee system under a constitutional arrangement by which there is no separation of powers between the Legislature and the Executive is a matter as I say of some delicacy until firm precedents are established and firm conventions set by mutual agreement. But the survival of the British system of parliamentary government has always depended on its adaptability to the changing nature and evolution of society. For instance, with the vast growth of public finance in the middle 19th and early 20th centuries it became necessary to examine in committee the accounts and estimates. It was not always necessary. At one time it could well be done, and in fact was done, on the Floor of the House. Honesty had become fashionable in public life and it was accepted in the 1850's that accounts should be checked in a more detailed way than could be achieved by that time on the Floor of the House.
With the development of the complexity of our society after the Second World War and the movement of the State into industry, with the State becoming an owner of industry in part, it became evident that a new instrument for public accountability was required to be forged by the House. The House responded to the need, in spite of the advice against it of such eminent Parliamentarians as the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth at that time, and it established 709 the Select Committee on Nationalised Industies.
Those who have perhaps been looking a few moments ahead of my words will probably have been able to predict that I shall now suggest that industrial societies cannot now escape the increasingly complex nature of science and technology. Science and technology become ever more pressing in society. It is not that there is anything new about science and there certainly is nothing new about technology, which has existed since the beginning of civilisation in one form or another. But it is the accelerating pace of the change that is the problem societies face today. This is why I argue that, if we are to make a choice between Select Committees, one should not leave science and technology out of account for it now decides so much.
One hundred years ago it was comparatively easy for hon. Members to decide whether it was better to have railways than roads and horses, or whether it was good to have a new loading line for ships. But today vast sums of money have to be spent and important decisions of great difficulty are made by Ministers on subjects such as nuclear reactors, carbon fibres, the question of whether Britain should support the European nuclear accelerator and—the subject we discussed yesterday—whether Britain should further participate at vast expense, involving public subsidies, in the aerospace industry. How can an hon. Member in the ordinary way, unless he works through some specialised instrument such as a Select Committee, come to a judgment? He can either oppose his Minister or support him, but his Minister in turn is relying upon some anonymous expert and there is everything to be said in these days for trying to get a little closer to events—and one can only do that, perhaps in an incomplete way, by means of a Select Committee.
I am not one who believes in consensus politics. I have never met anyone in this House who admitted that he did. It is rather like sin—no one admits to believing in it but many people practise it. No one could come forward here and say, certainly not in the presence of his constituents and supporters, that he believed in consensus politics.
But it is no good to argue seriously that one can get to the truth necessarily 710 on scientific and technical decisions in the Chamber or even near to the truth simply by the struggle of personalities or the clash of parties. One must probe more deeply.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
My hon. Friend is making a most important point. Would he say that the Reports of the Select Committee on Science and Technology have received sufficient consideration from the House?
§ Mr. Palmer
I do not think they have. But I want to be fair, and I admit that we have done rather better than some other Select Committees, although not as well as all that. We might have done better.
We are not the only Parliament which has discovered this difficulty in getting close to the actual events in science and technology. Whilst a Select Committee will not get the whole way, I think that it can often move closer than the House acting as a general body. Hence I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for recommending the re-establishment of the Select Committee on Science and Technology—this time to flourish for a full Parliament and not to be broken between one Session and the next. As I have said, I had the privilege of serving as its chairman. If anyone wants to know something about our work I recommend him to read the book edited by my hon. Friend. I too am a part author. Who is not?
Our reports have not always been debated, though some were. I regret particularly that the House did not debate a report on which we all worked intensely hard, the report on defence research. From my historical studies, such as they are, I think that this was the first time, at any rate in fairly modern times, that the House really investigated the technicalities of defence, as against its cost. To a great extent technicalities often determine defence policy. This was done by the Select Committee on Science and Technology. It took us 18 months. As a member of that Select Committee I say I hope with modesty, that I doubt whether the job has been done by anyone in public life as thoroughly as we did it. We were in a stronger position to do it than the Government, because it is not possible for them to call witnesses, for instance, from private industry, unless they are under a contractual arrangement. 711 But a select committee can, and we did, and we published the evidence. It is a bad thing that the House has not yet debated that report.
But at least we were given a White Paper by the Ministry of Defence commenting on our proposals—and here I return to my hon. Friend's intervention. I suggest that where the time and procedure of the House do not permit a debate—and it is not always essential to have one—then when Members have given their time to assist the country in the long run and to assist the better working of Parliament immediately, and when they have put up substantial arguments and produced evidence, the least Ministers can do is to give a reasoned answer in the form of a White Paper, and then the debate can go on in another form.
§ Mr. Lawson
I am interested in what my hon. Friend says. In part it cuts across what I said. Would he say that the House is a fit place to debate in a worthwhile fashion a report on a very intricate technical matter such as he is describing? Is that really a job in which Members of Parliament should or can properly be engaged?
§ Mr. Palmer
Unless we make the attempt to understand these things, always remembering that we are here essentially as public representatives, we shall put ourselves increasingly in the hands of so-called experts. We must try to make some kind of judgment. That is the best answer I can hope to give.
My Select Committee existed over the years from 1966 to 1970, and it was the first Select Committee of the House on science and technology. I believe that we certainly succeeded up to a point in influencing, if not determining, events—I will not go much beyond that. The reason why we, I believe, succeeded in having some influence can be given shortly under a number of headings. First, we could choose our own subject. We were not dependent on the Government or our terms of reference for choice of subject. We could range about. Second, we selected topics where new policy decisions were required and where, in at least one instance, the Government were dithering somewhat. We at least pushed them closer to making a decision where one 712 was required. Third, we took the trouble to do detailed work that could command some respect in scientific and technical circles. We had to rely here to an extent upon our own expert advisers, and they were of the greatest value. Also it happened that serving on the Select Committee on Science and Technology were hon. Members who were essentially Parliamentarians but whose background happened to be that of industry or science and technology. It is valuable if one can bring that kind of combination together on one Committee. Fourth, we travelled in moderation. In a world which is becoming increasingly close in the matter of communications, it is no good supposing that science and technology stop at the English Channel, the North Sea, or even the Atlantic Ocean. We have to make comparisons in other countries if we are to do effective work.
Finally, if we had any small success it was because we remembered we were at the service of the House as a whole, not in any sense compromising our party principles but sensibly remembering that there are areas where the facts, when discovered speak for themselves. Whatever our differences we might as well get the facts right first. Then we can build sounder arguments on the facts and give more reality to our controversies.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)
It is some hours since I listened to thoughtful speeches by two former Chief Whips, one of whom is sitting on the Government bench now. My own former Chief Whip let the cat out of the bag by speaking of how often, whether with committees of this nature or not, or by attendance in this Chamber or not, he had to dragoon hon. Members to intervene in debates. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for not applying the same tactics this evening, thus allowing some hon. Members to squeeze in short speeches.
I will make only one comment on the most impressive speech made by the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) about the need for all our committees and all our chairmen to have the facilities, the money, the expertise—that much abused word—and so forth. We can all accept that in toto. Secondly, it is the cliché of all clichés to 713 say that communications are vital to democracy. This applies inside this Chamber and to all Parliamentarians. It is not only in the N.C.B. or I.C.I. where the people at the bottom, in this context the back benchers, do not know as much as they should about what is happening at the top, in this context the Cabinet and the Government. My former Government spoke of this magic word "participation". The T.U.C. speak of "workers' control". I should like to make it clear to the Leader of the House that one of the most dominant feelings of new Members entering the House is a sense of not knowing what is happening or what the Government are doing. New Members come in full of ideas, ideals and enthusiasm, and they find that they are almost blank cyphers.
The mechanism of specialised and departmental committees is very important to enable incoming Members to feel that they belong to the place and can play a part in the whole of our proceedings.
We must not be mealy-mouthed. Ministers of both parties tend to be aloof and more than cagey at Question Time and in Committees. In that connection, it is interesting to read in the Green Paper that more of these committees would make additional work for Ministers, for the Departments, and so on. However, the words to which I take exception appear in paragraph 25, which talks about the increased pressure on the parliamentary timetable and goes on to refer to… the risk of controversy over the proper limits to the confidentiality of the decision-making process.In other words, if these committees function effectively, there is the danger that hon. Members may perhaps get to know to much.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), I believe that we should not only attempt to correct excesses, deficits and wastage in the public purse, but take a share in decision making. The Leader of the House is a sincere man, and this is a good Green Paper which must be implemented to the fullest extent.
I do not intend to make any comparisons with the American Constitution and committee system. It is in no way analogous. Like Victor Feather of the T.U.C., I am rather old-fashioned. I believe that we should base legislation 714 upon our history, institutions and environment. As a result, like Victor Feather, I strongly oppose the Government's endeavours in industrial relations where they depart from that basis. By the same yardstick, I believe that we should support the good behaviour of the Prime Minister and his Government in parliamentary relations, as evidenced by the Green Paper.
I have some experience of select committees, and I will now make a short speech setting out my views of the achievements of our committees, especially those of the Agriculture and Fisheries Sub-Committee, and the lessons that it learned.
The sub-committee functioned for only a few years, but it made a considerable impact on the Government and on public opinion. Such committees can force a Government to change some aspects of their policy. In that way, Members of Parliament can share in decision making.
If I might give an example, the sub-committee questioned the existence of the White Fish Authority and its efficiency, and questioned whether such a machine should exist in a Government Department. I understand that the Minister will be making a decision fairly soon about it.
The sub-committee was able to secure other changes. One example concerned the financing of vessels. That was an important policy change for the Department in deciding how to spend its money. Then the committee was able to influence the good work being done by "mother" ships in the context of the danger in the Arctic to our fishing fleets.
In my experience, specialist committees can have a considerable influence on the minds of Ministers, persuading them to change their proposals. In addition, many of us feel that we should play a part in the formulation of policy. When committees interview Ministers and afterwards reach their findings, their influence should be felt before decisions are taken by the Government. The Government cannot expect ambitious, hard-working back-bench hon. Members to play it any other way. If they are invited to serve on these committees and give their views, they must be expected at the end of their discussions to say to the Government, "We think that your policy should be changed".
715 I do not think we were misled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), who was the Leader of the House at the time, when he began these committees, and his record over the years shows him to be a fervent believer in these committees and in enlarging their powers. I would only mention as an example of what can be done the Ministry of Agriculture, which gave us in our committee the fullest possible aid. On the other hand, there was the almost Ruritanian or Balkan episode of the Committee, then under Mr. Tudor Watkins, which wanted to discuss the Common Market and our place in it if and when we entered it. As I say, we had no bother whatever with the Ministry of Agriculture. The nigger in the woodpile at that time was the Foreign Office; they were the people who made some difficulty over the thoroughness of the consultation we required. I can see smiles among some hon. Members, but while the Ministry of Agriculture commended the fullness of our consultation, the Foreign Office were bothered about the confidentiality of correspondence and thought the timing of our visit was inopportune.
To sum up, I think, first, that there should be a measure of permanence in these Committees. I am glad that the Leader of the House has been good enough to give us that. Our committee investigating fisheries was torpedoed and sunk when we wished to begin an investigation in depth of the White Fish Authority. Secondly, there should be consultation with the Leader of the House over any changes in the size, membership and duration of these committees. Thirdly, I believe that these Specialist Committees should be subject committees where possible; they should cover topics as opposed to just the work of particular Departments and being bound to that. I gather that the Government have conceded this, too. Fourthly, talking of numbers, I think that the Specialist Committees might be limited—in my view, should be limited—to about 16 Members who can get down to work as a team, under hard-working chairmen, and can get to know one another. Fifthly, I reinforce the point made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames, in a most admirable speech, that there should be adequate staff for these Committees; this experi- 716 ment must not suffer because of lack of staff.
Sixth, we should not be inhibited from considering policy in its formative stages. I was in Bulgaria—Sofia—not so long ago. Earlier a colleague of mine talked about being in Bonn looking at the Bundestag. I had a look at the setup in Sofia. What did I find? I found that the committees of this nature there begin the work on Bills, discuss them at all the formative stages and make changes, and it is only then that Ministers put them before the Chamber. We cannot go quite as far as that, but I suggest that back benchers should have a little more of a rôle in the early stages of the shaping of policy. We have not had a people's democracy here, and I do not consider tht we should have Standing Committees permanently in that fashion, but I believe that we must have a clearly-defined place and a clearly defined timetable for the committees. I am very glad that this admirable Green Paper fulfils these needs.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Southall)
The debate has been necessarily philosophical, mainly theoretical and inevitably reminiscent as hon. Members have spoken of their experience on Select Committees. I want to get down to brass tacks. I am taking part in the debate, albeit at this awkward hour on Thursday night, because I have something to get off my chest.
I welcome the decision to set up once again the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration of which I was a fairly diligent member. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) who thought that the work of this Select Committee should be merged into that of a much broader committee. That is an impossibility. We met twice a week, worked very hard and paid many visits both at home and abroad.
If I may be permitted a tiny reminiscence before getting down to practicalities, when we visited Wolverhampton we found that the corporation motto was "Out of darkness cometh light". There is a place in race relations and immigration not so much for consensus party politics as for consensus opinion. There has been such a consensus in the work of the Select Committee, as there was in 717 the policy committee on the Race Relations Bill in 1968, which became virtually a non-party committee. This is the way the nation wants it. I feared that the Government's lengthy consideration during the Summer Recess of what they would do might lead them to the view that they did not need to continue with this work. I hope that it will not be switched to community relations but will deal with immigration. Immigration and race relations cannot be divorced.
I do not want to pre-empt the contribution which I might later make, if I catch Mr. Speaker's eye, in the debate on the Expiring Laws (Continuance) Bill which continues the Acts of 1962 and 1968 in relation to Commonwealth immigration. It is proposed to take a gigantic, revolutionary step which must be carefully evaluated. If we join the Common Market, people from Italy will be able to come freely to this country, whereas a young man from New Zealand will have to have a four-year probationary period.
I want to sound a note of warning. There is a need for caution and a need to give the Committee time to work. Although the terms of reference of the Select Committee referred to immigration and race relations, the Committee did not consider alien immigration. We did not investigate why so many aliens who were here on work permits did not wish to bring their dependent relatives. We did not investigate the distances they travelled and the differences between one system and another.
When moving two objects together, it is possible to move one object all the way to the other, to move them equal distances until they meet, or to move one three-quarters of the way and the other one-quarter of the way. We need considered changes, wise changes, in which important bodies like the C.B.I., the T.U.C., the Home Department and the Department of Employment can, in this consensus, come to a considered judgment.
I am writing a piece for the Institute of Race Relations—I, too, am a bit of a writer; writers seem to be prolific here tonight. In that article, which will probably be entitled "The cart before the horse", I refer to the Select Committee. I am delighted to see the continuation of the work of the Select Committee on 718 Race Relations and Immigration, but I note that the Government are not yet ready with any legislation. There was a somewhat nebulous phrase about this subject in the Queen's Speech. We all know what the Conservative candidates were saying in the General Election. They seemed to think that any large concentrations could be broken up by sending people all over the British Isles, but in practice they will go where the work is.
This whole subject is such a sensitive one that I ask the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House to look at the matter in the brass-tacks terms in which I have raised the matter tonight. Thinking on this matter cuts completely across party lines and we are all struggling for the right way to tackle the problem. This is an important matter not only for this country but for the rest of the world.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Sir Brandon Rhys Williams (Kensington, South)
I wish to begin by apologising to the House for not being present to hear earlier contributions to this debate; I had a constituency function to attend. Since I wish to discuss something that is missing from the Green Paper rather than something that is contained in it, it is possible that what I have to say will not be in conflict with what has gone before.
I welcome the Green Paper and the suggestion of an Expenditure Committee. But my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House knows my opinion that an Expenditure Committee standing on its own without a taxation committee would be a one-sided exercise. It might be said that in concentrating on expenditure the House is putting the care before the horse.
We should bear in mind the history of the House of Commons. What brought Members together in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was primarily concern over taxation matters. A reading of Neale's fascinating account of Queen Elizabeth I and her Parliaments shows us again and again that taxation was their principal object of concern, and it is well known that this was the case in the seventeenth century. Issues concerned with taxation are not dead. In fact, in the twentieth century there have been some interesting new trends in the way Governments use taxation to achieve their ends. I feel that these matters have never 719 been sufficiently ventilated in the House of Commons.
I am thinking particularly of the whole theory of taxation and of its use as a weapon of economic management. This is an idea that might be said to have originated with Keynes, but it is at the back of Fliedmanite thinking as well. There are new developments in the theory of taxation as the weapon by which governments regulate the rate of growth, the balance of payments and similar matters.
§ Mr. Turton
I hope my hon. Friend realises that the Select Committee on Procedure is at this moment examining the whole question of the scrutiny of taxation.
§ Sir B. Rhys Williams
I hope my right hon. Friend's intervention is not intended to show that I am out of order, because that is far from what I wish to be. It was the fact that I am aware of what the Select Committee on Procedure is doing that led me to think that this debate should not end without a reference to it.
I recognise that the theory of taxation is all that a select committee could discuss: it would not be able to discuss the rates of tax. But I feel that that would not be a great handicap.
Let us examine the sorts of matters affecting taxation which might have been useful and topical subjects for discussion before a select committee—matters which have come before the House in recent years but which perhaps have not been sufficiently discussed. Consider the big change in company taxation in the last few years—the introduction of corporation tax. There were extensive debates on the theory of company taxation, but I believe that much deeper studies were conducted outside this House.
Hon. Members are at the moment very interested in the value-added tax and whether it is an appropriate successor to purchase tax. This might be said to be a highly political issue and, therefore, not entirely suitable for a select committee. Hon. Members on both sides do not, however, in my opinion, have nearly enough information on this subject. They have not been able to explore sufficiently the effects and the side effects of the value-added tax.
It is well known that I am preoccupied with personal taxation—[An HON. MEM- 720 BER:"We all are."] I do not wish to say anything which will give me an even worse reputation with the officers of the Inland Revenue. But I have sometimes tried—though generally I have been silenced by the Chair—to draw a distinction between what I call arrogatory taxation, whereby the Government take money from the individual to spend on their own purposes, and redistributive taxation, whereby the Government take money from one individual to pass on to another. The question which arises on arrogatory taxation is "How much?" and on redistributive taxation "to whom?". These are highly theoretical questions yet they are also topical.
In recent years we have become more aware than in the 19th century of the social effects of taxation. I am not speaking of taxation on tobacco and alcohol and the effects which changes in taxation may have on the consumption of those commodities. I refer, for instance, to selective employment tax. This is a tax deliberately contrived—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The debate is pretty wide, but it is not on alcoholism or selective employment tax.
§ Sir B. Rhys Williams
As usual, Mr. Speaker, your intervention is just and right. But it helps me to prove my point that back benchers have few occasions on the Floor of the House when it is in order to deal with matters of this kind, however much they may be preoccupied with them.
I should like to touch on some of the opportunities for discussion in the House which are available to hon. Members. Obviously, there is the Budget debate. We know, when the Chancellor comes to the House, that the consequences of the Budget debate have been decided long before. The whole thing is in print. What we say here is mere emptiness because once it has been decided by the Chancellor, accepted by the Cabinet, and run off by the printer, that is the end of parliamentary control over taxation for that year. There are opportunities in the Finance Committee to deal with the theory of taxation, but the House, in its wisdom, has set obstacles in the way of hon. Members who wish to discuss new-fangled ideas. An hon. Member is not allowed to recommend either an increase in taxation or in benefits.
721 I do not think that I shall be speaking out of turn in mentioning a particular difficulty that we felt in debating the last Finance Bill, when issues connected with negative income tax were much discussed on Second Reading. The late Mr. Iain Macleod, who was at that time the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, asked me to ensure that an Amendment was tabled to the Finance Bill which would enable the House to have a general debate on negative income tax at the committee stage. I spent many hours in the Public Bill Office, and I had the bet possible advice. I contrived to table an Amendment which was not out of order. But the contrivance was so patently obvious that the Chair, in its wisdom, did not select my Amendment—I suppose either because it was so difficult to see how a sensible and relevant debate could arise or possibly because it was seen that what I was doing was essentially out of order. Thus the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he wished to give the House an opportunity to discuss something which was of great topical interest, was unable to do.
Hon. Members can sometimes bring up issues at Question Time, but in the course of a few words it is difficult to make one's point effectively. You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that today I tried to raise a subject which I know is of considerable importance to hon. Members on both sides of the House; but my hon. Friend in his reply accused me of being circuitous, and perhaps he was right. I was simply attempting—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. With all the good will in the world, we cannot have an inquest in this debate on last year's Finance Bill or today's Question Time. We are discussing the functions, or possible functions, of certain committees.
§ Sir B. Rhys Williams
I was simply trying to show that there is a vacuum, and that a Select Committee on Taxation could fill it.
I want to allude to only one other opportunity which private Members have in the absence of a select committee, and that is to table Private Bills, Private Members' Motitons, Early Day Motions and so on. These are sometimes useful in that they attract attention outside the House, but from my limited experience 722 I know that it is difficult to give rise to a really serious debate on a theoretical matter by the introduction of a private Member's Bill or a Private Member's Motion.
Ought there to be, among the range of specialist committees, one to deal with taxation? I feel most strongly about this, and I am sure that I am not alone. As my right hon. Friend reminded me, earlier this year the Select Committee on Procedure took a large body of evidence on this subject. Some highly distinguished people gave evidence to the Committee. There was, for instance, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), though I should like to feel that he would wish to change his mind about some of his remarks.
§ Sir B. Rhys Williams
This perhaps is something that my right hon. Friend and I ought not to attempt to discuss on the Floor of the House.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave evidence to the Committee. People of considerable influence in this field outside the House gave evidence, and I think it is true to say that the great weight of everything that was said was critical of the House, in that it showed that the debates that we have on the Floor of the House on taxation are not thought to be of sufficient detail, of sufficient depth and in command of enough data to be worthy of the body which is leading the nation.
It has been said that once a specialist committee is set up it weakens the debate on the Floor of the House because the most serious work is done upstairs or outside. I think that that would be particularly untrue in the case of taxation, because a select committee would ensure that hon. Members had access to data which is not now obtainable anywhere at all and, coming from a select committee to a debate, for instance, on the Finance Bill, they would be able to command the attention of the House and not simply to empty it.
I am not recommending something that is simply a hobby-horse of my own. I am trying to draw attention in this debate 723 to something which I know is a preoccupation of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
Discussing this Green Paper is like discussing egg production without reference to chickens. We have been, or should have been, discussing a Report on Select Committees. The debate has abundantly shown that we cannot discuss Select Committees or any other facet of the procedure of the House without considering other aspects of the House, its committees and Members' activities. Every speech has illustrated this.
I was surprised by one strain which seems to have run to a modest extent through the debate. I thought originally that the debate would be restricted because the Green Paper deals with a particular subject. I am glad that it was not. However, I was surprised by my Scottish colleague, a former Deputy Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) who, while correctly stating that the House is the focal point of our debates, seemed to overstress the functions of the House as against committees.
We can only operate, and have always operated since the Middle Ages, with a balance between the House at the centre and whose principal function is for the major occasions—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) said—and the Select Committees or other sorts of Committees. There will always be an argument about where the precise boundary between the two should lie. That is a good thing. The balance will change from time to time.
I discovered that as a new Member when considering the televising or broadcasting of the proceedings of the House. Although I am an advocate of televising the House, I was concerned by the possibility that the House would become too strong and powerful a centre merely because we would be increasing its publicity value by televising it if the committees of the House were never televised. Therefore, if the proceedings of the House were broadcast, I would wish to see the activities of members of Committees broadcast. We have the same difficulty with the Press. The Press Association does a good job for us, but individual 724 newspapers cannot, and do not, cover the proceedings of the Committees of the House.
I find another strain in the debate—the distinction between subject and departmental committees—totally unreal. I confess that I am slightly biased. I have served on many Select Committees and Standing Committees, but strangely I have never served on a Specialist Committee in the sense that we use the word when we refer to the Agriculture, Education and Science and Technology Committees for example. That may mean, not that I am biased, but that I am objective as against some Members who have spoken and given their potted histories of individual committees.
Two essential things are forgotten. We have subject Departments of State. Whether we like it or not, there is an Education and Science Department. It may be that Committees of the House should not necessarily conform to the boundaries within the Government. This is something else which the argument neglects. There is no reason why the House, if it sets up committees for any purpose, should act at all times for all purposes as if it were the Executive instead of the Legislature and the check on the Executive. There is no reason why a committee should not be a subject committee with different boundaries from a subject Department. As an example, I understand that the responsibility of the Home Office for children may be transferred to some other Department.
There are unusual features, for purely historic reasons, of departmental boundaries, but basically Departments of State are subject Departments of State. A Minister dealing with agriculture is dealing with agriculture and not with industry. Therefore, the whole argument is unreal.
If we had a complete range of committees covering all subjects and departments, no doubt the boundaries between them would be sorted out by the House, by some such body as the Liaison Committee, which the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) chaired so well. It would not necessarily conform to Departments, but nor, I suspect, would it necessarily be very far from their main functions.
725 The third main point in the debate was the strain on hon. Members and the staff of the House if there are too many committees. The extraordinary thing about it is that the authority on Standing Committees informs us that this argument has been going on ever since Standing Committee were first set up. The Green Paper makes this point in paragraph 6, when it says:The increasing demands on the time of Members made by Select Committee work generally can be seen from the rise in the number of sittings of such Committees and their sub-Committees".It mentions that there were 629 sittings in 1969. However, it does not compare that with the number of sittings of Standing Committees. The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) was the first to produce figures about this.
Even so, there is a comparison in the Green Paper between the number of hon. Members on Standing and Select Committees—and if the Leader of the House is talking about the strain upon hon. Members, I hope he will remember that the total number of 95 Select Committee memberships in the Green Paper—memberships and not individual people; because many hon. Members serve on more than one—is to be compared to a total of 530 memberships of Standing and Select Committees together. If there is a strain on hon. Members, where is it? It is clearly not necessarily because of the number of Select Committees.
In answer to a Question from me the other day, the Leader of the House said that his reading on this subject had not gone back to the nineteenth century. I sympathise, but I wish that it had and I hope that it will because another suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford, which he has arrived at independently from his former experience as Chief Whip and which I have arrived at through looking up the history of Standing Committees, is that we should start again what was once the practice of the House, and that is the practice of committing Bills to Select Committees. We now do it only for the Army Act, and that is by special arrangement. At one time if a Bill were not taken on the Floor of the House it was committed to a Select Committee.
That practice declined with the greater use of the Standing Committee procedure. 726 In 1882 the first Standing Committees were set up and it is interesting to note that they were specialist committees, though subject committees. One related to law and similar subjects and the other to trade and industry. Their procedure wasas in a Select Committee unless the House shall otherwise order".Although the procedure of Standing Committees altered over the years, it is interesting to see that the relevant Standing Order remained an Order of the House until 1948. Furthermore it was not an accident that that was the Order of the House. I say it was not an accident because an amendment to the Order was moved on the Floor of the House by Lord Randolph Churchill, but it was resisted by the Government of the day. His amendment would have given Standing Committees a procedure similar to that of the House of Commons.
Instead, Standing Committees were given independent chairmen, just as you are our Chairman on the Floor of the House, Mr. Speaker. But off their own bat, so to speak, the chairmen formed themselves into a panel and decided to change the rules of procedure contrary to the Standing Order under which their committees worked. At some time we should, as a House of Commons, consider how our legislative process works, and it is in this connection that the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford is valuable.
There is no need for a strain on Members' time if, for example, the Members who are sufficiently interested in agriculture and who have sufficient time sit on a Specialist Committee related to agriculture—I do not mind whether it is called a departmental committee or whether Scottish agriculture is included and it is called a subject committee.
Let us say that there is an Agriculture Committee. It is then possible that once in every two or three years—I think that three would be a reasonable average—there will be an Agriculture Bill. There is no reason why, as was originally intended at the end of the nineteenth century, one could not say to the members of the Agriculture Committee, "For these six months you do not investigate the Department of Agriculture or the method of working of agriculture. Instead, you use your expertise"—that word which 727 has already come under criticism in the debate—"for the purposes of considering this legislation, which is, after all, designed to deal with certain problems which you must have discovered in the course of your membership of the Committee".
Other people would need to be added to the Committee. Obviously the Ministers concerned would need to be added and the Opposition Front Bench speaker. They, too, are experts. There might be a wish to add a few people who were not experts merely to provide an objective outside point of view. That does not necessarily mean that one should necessarily also use the experts one has. Nor does it mean that the procedure of the Select Committee should be changed.
I have a shrewd suspicion that on one point alone we should save much of the time of Members if for the Committee stage of legislation Members sat round a table instead of stood and addressed the Chair. I know when I am supposed to end now, but once people are on their feet it is surprising how they have a tendency to carry on talking; whereas, if they are sitting round the table, their speeches are much shorter. This is not a rule of procedure, but every hon. Member will agree that it is a very practical rule. There is no reason why legislation could not be considered in some such Committee.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is coming to the end of his speech. Is he suggesting that, for example, the question of levies on food imports is a matter on which agreement could be reached on both sides in his proposed Agriculture Committee?
§ Mr. English
I shall certainly not go into the question of levies on food imports at this hour. I suspect that you, Mr. Speaker, would call me to order if I did.
I do not share the view that all Select Committees, merely because they are Select Committees, must be consensus bodies. They may well be such, and it may well be appropriate on some subjects. It is not necessarily appropriate on every subject. Nor is there any reason 728 why a subject committee cannot be a consensus committee often when it is investigating, and still form its own opinions as a result of investigation when it is acting as a nucleus inside a legislative committee.
Having thus to a certain extent criticised the Green Paper, I welcome it in so far as it goes. I would like added to it the proposal for some study of the Standing Committee system and some consideration of the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend for Deptford that we try on an experimental basis using some of our Select Committees, expanded for legislative purposes.
§ 9.39 p.m.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) will not object if in the few minutes remaining to me I go into one or two points which even at this hour I hope to put across and not comment on his speech.
My first point concerns the questioning of Departments and the need to make them justify themselves. In the past few years we have seen an extension of the chain between the wishes of the people and the final decisions of Government which makes for less control over the decisions of the Civil Service.
Here is an example. We now have the development of the conglomerate Ministries. As a result, the chain of control goes from Parliament to Government, to the big Ministers in charge of the conglomerates, then to the little Ministers, and then to the civil servants. It is little wonder, in view of the extended chain of control, that the links themselves prevent a great deal of information becoming available and prevent proper control being established.
We need to ensure, through the chain from Parliament to Government, to big Minister, to little Minister and to the civil servants, a proper degree of control, but it is not likely to be attained under the present arrangements. We can ensure a measure of control, however, by bringing the civil servants themselves into our select committees so that they may be asked to justify their decisions. With the greater complexity of the new system, with super-Ministries, this need will become greater, not less. The questioning function is crucial.
729 There is also the function of deciding among various choices put before us. We all know, having taken part in many such debates, that we do not really debate the crucial issues of choice. I take taxation as an example. In a taxation debate, hon. Members will say that this or that tax is too high, but they do not say, on the other hand, what tax they would replace it with or what piece of expenditure they would reduce. The discipline of relating reductions in taxation to reductions of expenditure is crucial in this context. As matters stand at present, however, for many days of the year—we spend a great deal of our time discussing taxation—we never really debate the real question: If we do not want this or that tax, what shall we cut out? Without that discipline of stating alternatives, we have meaningless debates. We shall have such a debate on Tuesday next when we discuss the Income and Corporation Taxes Bill, and we shall have them again and again on the Finance Bill, until we face the real issue of deciding between available choices.
In the short time available to me, I add a word or two about the role of select committees. I do not regard as serious the argument that Select Committees produce reports which are not debated. We can regard the Select Committee as an end in itself. A Select Committee brings the civil servants before us. They can be questioned in a manner which is not possible in the House. At Question Time we have opportunity for only one supplementary question, and anyone who is at all competent knows how to avoid answering if he wishes not to answer. In a Select Committee, on the other hand, a question can be put again and again until the answer is forthcoming, and civil servants can be forced to justify their decisions and reasoning. This, as I say, is an end in itself.
For example, under the present system, who really questions the Treasury on some of the fundamental economic decisions taken in the lifetime of a Parliament? There will never be that questioning. The only way in which questions can become effective comes when we have the people there and can ask them, "What are the alternatives? Why was this alternative chosen rather than that?". I do not, therefore, see it 730 as a stumbling block that reports are not necessarily debated. There will be many occasions when questioning by Members of Parliament of civil servants can be an end in itself.
Neither do I accept the argument about the emptying of the House in order to fill the Select Committees. They are two separate things. The issues are debated and examined in the committees, the decisions are taken here. There is examination upstairs and decision-making here. They are quite separate.
My answer to the argument that Members' time is obviously limited is that when the system starts operating the interest and enthusiasm that can be shown by hon. Members capable of taking an active and proper part in the examination of civil servants will be such that it will be much easier to man the committees than perhaps has been thought.
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
With the permission of the House, I should like to try to reply to the debate very briefly. I was faced with deciding whether I should try to take time fully to reply to the points made by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen or give every hon. Gentleman who wished to take part the opportunity to do so. I chose the second course, because I believed that this was a debate in which we wished to hear the views of the House. That was why I was most anxious to let in the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) at the end. If, therefore. I do not answer all the points made, I am sure that the House will understand.
I thank the House for the general support it has given to the Green Paper. I realise that that support is conditional, and it is right that it should be, because it is how we carry out the proposals in the Green Paper, how they work, which in the end really matters.
I particularly thank the right hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) for what he said. He has great experience, and I agree with those who said that he made considerable advances in this field during his time as Leader of the House. I felt that he raised the first point of importance when he said that we should not be dogmatic, that we should make a measured, pragmatic approach to the problem. I hope that the Green 731 Paper certainly is not dogmatic. It sets out the possibilities of how we should proceed. I want it to be reasonably permanent, but it must be adaptable as we find how things are working out.
The right hon. Gentleman's second point was on the question of debates on the reports. Many other hon. Members raised this, including the hon. Members for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh), Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) and Ashton-under-Lyne. I found what was said very interesting. I had expected that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen would say that it was very unsatisfactory that the reports were not always debated. In view of the problems I have over Government time, I am very relieved to hear that they did not feel that all of them should always be debated. I do not want to make an unfair point here, bat if I understand the views of hon. Members correctly, they are really as follows. There are some reports which clearly should be debated by the House. There are others which rely for their value on the publicity which they are given outside, the contacts which the committees have made with bodies outside, and the influence the reports have on opinion in general. We should try to get the right balance. It is always difficult, but we should try to be guided on that basis.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) made a very important speech from his considerable experience of these matters. He very properly raised the problem of staffing the committees, which I accept is a very important matter. My approach to it is as follows. I should like to set up a new Select Committee on expenditure and to discuss with its chairman, after he has had an opportunity of discussions with the members, exactly how it sees its work being carried out and what staffing it would require. It would be absurd to say here and now that I could meet all the demands it might make upon me. I can only say that I should do my best to do so. I think it right to hear first what it considers is needed. If that need for extra staffing applies to the other committees as well, then I believe that that is a matter for the unofficial committee of chairmen, presided over, I hope, as in the past, by the chair- 732 man of the Public Accounts Committee. I hope that he will again approach me on behalf of that committee, saying what he feels to be the staffing needs, and these should rightly be considered. I do not say that one can always meet everything that is required. I believe that the first task is to discover exactly what it is that is needed.
I recognise at once that this raises the question of the terms of reference of the Select Committee on Expenditure and on the number of members it should have. I have been interested in the views put forward about the size of the Committee, and they will, of course, be taken into account. I have also been interested in the views on its terms of reference. Again, I want to proceed in this matter—and to some extent I hope that I answer the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian on this point—with as much general agreement of the House as I can.
I realise that the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley) does not believe in selection for committees by the Whips. He would find me a rather difficult person to convince of that point of view. I feel, however, that it is very important—as I found during my time as Chief Whip—to try and proceed in the manning of the committees and on their terms of reference with the maximum amount of agreement between the parties themselves and also between all those hon. Members who are particularly interested. If I may say so, for once talking of my own past, as many hon. Members have talked about theirs in these matters, the much maligned usual channels are very often a pretty shrewd guide to what the House and many of its Members want—very often much shrewder than many people appreciate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorking (Sir G. Sinclair) rightly pointed out that he managed to get on two Select Committees with what he described as my reluctant help. It was rather more severe than that. I did not feel that it was possible for him to conduct all the work he was doing—very important work—in this House and sit on both these Committees as well. He felt that he could. He did it. I think he was proved right and I was proved wrong, and there we are. He also made a point about the Library research staff in relation to the staffing of the committees. I accept 733 that this is important and can provide a valuable part of the staffing of these committees.
The right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was very generous for one whose Committee is being wound up, and I must thank him for that. He and others raised a point about participation. This is immensely important. It comes under the same heading of contact with outside bodies and making Parliament alive perhaps sometimes away from Westminster. Again I believe that this is an important function of the Select Committees.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Sir H. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid) regretted the demise of the Estimates Committee because he felt that we might lose the value of those eminent clerks who work with small committees. I hope that those clerks will have similar opportunities in the sub-committees of the new Select Committee on Expenditure.
The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin), from his considerable experience, which is not wholly remote from my own, made some very important points. He discussed the need to re-think the use of time in the House. I have considerable sympathy with his point of view, as he knows. It is easy to take that view, but, as I am now beginning to find out, it is much more difficult to carry it out or to make some of the changes one has dreamed up in one's past. I recognise that this is very important, as indeed is the whole question of Standing Committees, to which hon. Members have referred. Again, one is right to think of that aspect.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the point about having one day less for sittings of the House and presumably he considered that that day should be devoted to the work of Select Committees. It is an interesting suggestion and one I have always been rather keen on myself. I am assured, however, that there would be considerable difficulties, particularly in that the Select Committees as we would have them would not all be able to conduct their meetings on those days because they have more meetings than that. This raises problems, but the idea is worth considering.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) raised 734 three important points. The first was about the additional information requested in paragraph 15 of the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure. I am assured that the information about prospective changes in public expenditure is set out in the Vote on Account in the way recommended by the Select Committee on Procedure. If that does not meet my right hon. Friend's point, I shall be only too pleased to look into the matter further.
Secondly, my right hon. Friend raised the question of a two-day debate on public expenditure. Looking to the future, I believe that I can give that undertaking once a Select Committee on expenditure is set up. Presumably one day would be devoted to considering what the Select Committee on Expenditure had reported on the public expenditure White Papers. As for this year, however, we have an exceptional situation. We have already had a two-day debate—one day provided by the Opposition—on public expenditure. Therefore, this January, I would not feel able to give the undertaking of a two-day debate, but I would for the future.
Thirdly, my right hon. Friend raised the question of overlap. Where there is overlap between the new Select Committee on expenditure and, for example, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, that would be sorted out by the unofficial committee of chairmen. If it is something inside the Select Committee on expenditure, I very much agree with the hon. Member for Fife, West and others that there is need for a steering committee which would sort out exactly how the work of the sub-committees should be carried on.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Alfred Morris) said that students of Parliament outside wanted to participate in the debate about our procedures. I think that he is right, and his book is an admirable step in that direction.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. David Walder) raised the question of more Press publicity for Select Committee's reports. That is an important point which I am sure the chairmen of the various committees should very carefully consider. If we do 735 not have the debates, let us properly consider how better the reports can be publicised.
The hon. Member for Fife, West spoke about the attendance of Members and the problems of achieving it, together with the strain on Members' time. There is a divergence of view in the House. Under our existing procedures—and I accept that there are those who would like to change them—there are considerable problems about getting sufficient Members to do all the jobs required to be done in the House.
I say to the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian that it is no answer to say that people want to serve on the Select Committees and that, therefore, we should have many more and it does not matter about the other jobs—the Private Bills, and so on. The Private Bills must be dealt with. Members must do these jobs, and the question of strain on Members must be regarded in that light.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) wanted a greater degree of permanence for Select Committees. I can promise him that that is also my purpose.
The hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) raised the question of answers when there had been no possibility of a debate. I am prepared to consider his points and to see how better we can meet the desires of Committees.
I hope that hon. Members whose points I have not been able to answer will excuse me. I will take note of what they have said. If they wish to pursue any points with me, perhaps they would do so either in person or in correspondence.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Green Paper on Select Committees of the House of Commons (Command Paper No. 4507).