HC Deb 22 March 1973 vol 853 cc696-704

5.1 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

We are now concerned with considering certain increases in expenditure. One of these increases concerns the expenditure of Committees of this House. It is stipulated in the report just how the money is expended—shorthand-typists, foreign travel, specialist assistance and so on. These items are not cheap and I would not wish to see a Committee unduly reined in. I do not begrudge these increases in expenditure, provided that I feel confident that such expenses on the part of Committees are properly directed.

Unfortunately I do not always feel that confidence. Therefore I have felt bound to raise this issue this afternoon. On 18th December I raised in this House the question of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was very helpful. He said, I have sympathy with what my hon. Friend said and those of us who heard his speech must have been impressed with what he had to say. I know that the House will want me to discuss the matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1972; Vol. 848, c. 1068.] Unfortunately there are occasions when sympathy is not quite enough. There are occasions when a clear statement is called for about whether correct procedures have applied. I am delighted to see my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) present today. He is a senior member of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner. The initial error, I claim, was that that Select Committee took evidence in public, employing shorthand writers, without inviting the hon. Member concerned. This is not a simple matter of common courtesy, it is a matter of principle and of a Member's ability to safeguard the interests of his constituents. A Member is entitled to sit in on a Committee when evidence is being heard in public.

The Select Committee on Procedure of which I am a member makes plain that this is so. We have only to turn to the Third Report of that Committee for 1971–72 to find confirmation of that. Equally, Erskine May is perfectly clear on the point. Thus if what happened was contrary to the traditions and practices of this House I would expect the Minister to say so this afternoon.

After this initial error it might be thought that the Committee would be anxious to make amends. It might be thought that when approached it would agree to see the Member concerned. Did it? It did not. The Chairman of the Committee wrote—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)

Order. Surely the way in which the hon. Member should approach this problem is by tabling a substantive motion. I do not think he should do this on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Hamilton

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Consolidated Fund Bill as I understand it, provides an opportunity for back bench Members to raise grievances before expenditure is incurred. I am merely taking this as an example to show why I am hesitant to approve increased expenditure for Committees. If you will bear with me I will not take more than five minutes of the valuable time of the House. I see you wish it to be less than five minutes.

What the Chairman wrote was: The Committee have considered this but did not fee) that they could ask you to meet them. There was no hint of regret or of making amends. Thus I am afraid that the original error was compounded. It would have been so infinitely simple for the Committee to have suggested to the hon. Member concerned that he should attend one of its informal meetings, without a shorthand writer being present. No such suggestion was made.

So you will begin to see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, why I am hesitant to approve an increase in the expenditure of Committees of this House. The much respected Chairman of this particular Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart), is occupied this afternoon on the business of the Council of Europe. Naturally I notified him that I would be making a passing reference to his Committee. In any case the issue is procedural and not personal.

What was the reason given for this refusal to see the hon. Member in question? I was told: The Committee have always shown a determination to resist setting themselves up to retry cases such as this. If the Committee does not wish to retry a case why has it called in and examined publicly one party only in what is a highly controversial issue? Why does hearing evidence from civil servants not constitute a retrial whereas hearing evidence from an hon. Member does? I cannot fathom the logic of this and I cannot believe that there is logic to it.

Having reached this impasse I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee and said, "If you feel unable to look at the matter again, will your Committee consider a paper if I submit it, and secondly will it consider publishing that paper in its report?". That was a modest enough request but it went unanswered. Finally—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It may have been a modest request and it may have been unanswered but it does not help the hon. Member to bring what he is saying into order under the Bill.

Mr. Hamilton

I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What has happened is that a Select Committee of this House has accorded facilities to civil servants and yet has denied the same facilities to an hon. Member. We are always careful in this place, rightly so, to abate criticism of civil servants for the reason that they have no opportunity to defend their actions. Yet here is a case where top civil servants have been welcomed into our Committee Rooms, where their narrative and opinions are spread over 18 columns of a Stationery Office publication at public expense, while the hon. Member whose constituents are affected waits in the corridor.

The lesson is clear. Any Member of this House who writes a letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner—and which of us does not?—is liable to find his constituency publicly debated, put on the public record by fellow hon. Members without his knowledge, without his presence and without his participation. What has the Leader of the House to say about this? I have every confidence in the ability of the Parliamentary Secretary to make his views clear. With his usual courtesy the Leader of the House notified me that he had to go to an important meeting this afternoon and would not be able to speak in the debate. We all appreciate that my right hon. Friend cannot dictate the actions of this or that Select Committee. What he can do is to give a lead, to point a way whereby such things can be resolved. What can happen once can happen twice. What can happen to one hon. Member can happen to another.

5.9 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

In the absence of the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart) perhaps I might say a word, not so much in defence but in explanation of the behaviour of this Committee of which I have been a member since its inception. I suppose that at a Sitting we often deal with as many as 20 to 25 cases, sometimes more. Purely from the point of view of administration it would be almost impossible to communicate in advance with each hon. Member—for it is only Members who can bring cases before the Parliamentary Commissioner—because we do not always know which way the discussion is leading and which cases will be taken. I should have thought that from the administration point of view the burden upon the Clerks if they had to inform hon. Members which cases we shall take would be almost impossible.

Secondly, my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that he is entitled to attend. His difficulty may be that he does not know when his case is coming up—I follow that—but he is entitled to attend. I understand that it is a rule of all Select Committees that, unless and until the Select Committee itself, or this House, decides that it shall meet in secret or exclude other hon. Members, any hon. Member can attend any Select Committee. Particularly is this the case when evidence is being taken.

When we take evidence from the accounting officers of the Departments— that is to say, usually the Permanent Under-Secretaries—we do our best to avoid retrying the case. That is not our function—I often wish it were, but it certainly is not—and we scrupulously observe this in spite of the difficulty of sometimes straying over the border, as all committees are apt to do in their enthusiasm. We try our best not to do that, but we have to examine the accounting officers because from time to time the Parliamentary Commissioner makes criticisms either of their behaviour during the conduct of the case into which he is inquiring or of their failure to put right subsequently procedures which he has found to be defective or, for example, to examine their internal rules, as he sometimes advises should be done. We have to help the Parliamentary Commissioner by seeing what the Departments have done to follow up his criticisms and complaints and hearing why they do not choose to accept the criticisms, if they have not so chosen.

This is important work, although I cannot say it is thrilling, and we work quite hard. We range over a great many cases, but we are not retrying them. We could not do it in the time. We should have to sit every day of the week if we were to do that. We try to draw some general lessons, we go through the annual reports, but taking evidence afresh on an individual case is something we seek most resolutely not to do. If we had called my hon. Friend as a witness, we should have been doing just that, because, unfortunately for us, my hon. Friend is not in a position to put right wrong procedures in Whitehall in order to remedy defects which the Parliamentary Commissioner has discovered in the interstices of the Department, or anything like that. I wish he were, but he is not. Therefore, if we were to examine him, we should be reopening the case, which is something that is forbidden to us.

I hope my hon. Friend will not mind my intervening to express that point of view, because I was not privy to his correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman, although I know enough of the way his mind works to assure my hon. Friend and the House that there was no question of discourtesy. It was simply that if we had afforded him an opportunity of going into the witness box we should have been doing exactly what we are most strictly forbidden to do.

5.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Civil Service Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton) with great interest. I hope he will not mind my saying that I think I should have been a little surprised to hear him make those remarks had he not been kind and courteous enough to tell me yesterday evening that he wished to make this particular point at this stage of the Consolidated Fund Bill.

The precise subject which he put forward is the increase in expenses of Select Committees which came under Clause 1 Vote 2, and the items referred to here are the cost of shorthand writers, specialist assistants and travel abroad incurred during the past year. The particular case to which my hon. Friend referred—as has my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke)—does not relate very closely to the increased expenditure under these heads, but as the points have been raised I hope, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that you will allow me to reply briefly to them.

First, I should like to make it clear to my hon. Friend that I am fully aware of the background to the case which he summarised today. He has made clear in this House on several occasions his feelings about the particular proceedings of the Select Committee on the Ombudsman as regards a case which concerns his constituency, Salisbury, and his constituency only. I have studied the remarks he made on 18th December when he sought to raise this matter on a procedure debate. I have also studied the reply which my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House made on that occasion. My right hon. Friend then noted my hon. Friend's remarks and commented that this was a matter for the Chairman of the Select Committee concerned—the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart)—but agreed to bring my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Chairman of that Select Committee.

I can confirm that since that debate my right hon. Friend has seen the right hon. Member for Fulham and made him aware of my hon. Friend's feelings. But I must immediately make it clear that he has in no way attempted to influence the Chairman of the Select Committee— and this is the crux of the case.

I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury if the correct procedures had been followed and I can assure him that as regards the relationship of Select Committees and Ministers, the correct procedures have been followed.

My hon. Friend has raised this important matter. He feels—and I can understand this—that as the hon. Member for Salisbury he should have been called before the Select Committee on the Ombudsman when it considered the case which he had referred to the Commissioner. He goes on to imply that hon. Members generally should not just be invited to Select Committees at the discretion of the Chairman of the Select Committee in question but that hon. Members should have an absolute right to be called before Select Committees when they are discussing a matter which significantly affects their constituencies. This is a very important constitutional point and I am sure that hon. Members present today will understand why my hon. Friend is continuing to press it.

What I have to say to him as a Minister, however, is that this is not a matter on which Ministers can express an opinion. It is not for me—or the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House—to sympathise with the hon. Member on this matter, because that could be taken by the House to indicate that I was seeking improperly to influence the Select Committee in what it did or how it conducted its business. I am sure all hon. Members would agree that it would be undesirable for it to be felt that Select Committees were merely the poodles of Ministers to be told when to sit and when not to sit, to be given commands on what they should do and what they should not do, to be told what evidence to hear and what evidence not to hear. I must confess that that is not an accusation about Select Committees that I have heard since I have been in this House or since I have been a Minister.

I feel that this is a constitutional issue of some importance and I would only say to my hon. Friend that I and the Leader of the House must remain neutral in this matter. Select Committees are appointed by the House for the business of the House, and they report to the House. It would be quite improper for a Minister to seek to influence either the Chairman or the Select Committee in its deliberations.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South-West)

Is the Minister aware that, when the Select Committee on Expenditure made a proposal to the Leader of the House recently that its sub-committees should be able to report directly to the House, the Leader gave the pretty firm reply that the Government were not in favour of that? Is that not a breach of the principle he has just enunciated?

Mr. Baker

By no means. It is a related issue but it does not affect the principle that Ministers should not seek to influence the procedures of a Committee and make it reopen a case which the Committee feels it has finished with, as we are being invited to do in this case. I think there is a fundamental distinction between that and the example given by the hon. Gentleman. It seems clear to me that this is a matter which must be decided not by Ministers but by the House.

My hon. Friend, as a well-known and respected Member of the House, will be aware that this is a matter which can be raised with the Select Committee on Procedure, of which he is a member. He will also know that at present there are some uncertainties about the rights of hon. Members in relation to Select Committees and Standing Committees and their right to actually attend Select Committees, and the Third Report of the Committee on Procedure is lying on the table of the House at the moment.

The Select Committee on Procedure would be in a position to consider the issue raised by my hon. Friend. He referred to a paper which he wished to submit. I suggest that it would be appropriate for the Select Committee on Procedure to take that paper if my hon. Friend wished to submit it and to persuade the Committee that his point is worthy of consideration.

I fully support the views expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen. This is an important constitutional matter which cannot be properly dealt with in the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury would like.

I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming and make the statements which my hon. Friend encouraged me to make. I hope the House will agree that this is a matter which must be decided by the House and the institutions which the House has set up to be guardians of its procedure. The way in which Select Committees of this House conduct their business must be decided by the House, by the Select Committee on Procedure and by the Select Committees themselves. It is not a matter for Ministers.