§ [FIRST DAY'S DEBATE]
§ [Relevant documents: First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1977–78 (House of Commons Paper No. 588); "First to Eighth Reports from the Select Committee on Procedure (Sessional) in Session 1976–77.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan Davies.]
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
The Select Committee on Procedure produced its first and, indeed, main report in July. It is House of Commons Paper No. 588. It followed more than two years' work. Our chairman was the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams), who is now overseas as chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Therefore, the other members of the Committee have asked me to present the report to the House on this occasion.
Our terms of reference were toconsider the practice and procedure of the House in relation to public business and to make recommendations for—I underline these words—the more effective performance of its functions ".It was the most far-reaching and thorough inquiry of its kind for over 30 years, certainly since 1946. Although the membership of the Committee comprised almost every shade of opinion in the House, its recommendations were unanimous with regard to the main proposals. I am sure that every member of the Committee believes that if the main recommendations are implemented it will enable Parliament to serve the nation more effectively.
On various details, some of which were minor ones, we disagreed. There were 44 Divisions. But we all agreed on the fundamental principles which guided our approach. They are set out on page viii of the report. I do not propose to read them in full, because they can be read in paragraphs 1.5, 1.6 and 1.7. However, I should like to stress two things. First, 45 we agreed that the relationship between the Executive and the legislature is a crucial feature of our institutions of government and, secondly, we say that the balance of advantage in the working of our constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government—I do not make a party point, because it relates to a Government of whatever complexion—to a degree which arouses widespread anxiety.
That occurs under our present system. Our proposals are aimed at enabling the House above allto exercise effective control and stewardship over Ministers and the expanding bureaucracy of the modern State for which they are answerable, and to make the decisions of Parliament and Government more responsive to the wishes of the electorate ".In other words, I think that there is sometimes a general feeling among those outside Parliament that we become remote from the opinions, feelings and needs of the people and, therefore, that we in Parliament should organise our affairs in such a way as to bring us all closer together.
With those thoughts in mind, the Committee has striven to find ways, first, of improving the content and drafting of Acts of Parliament; secondly, of improving our control over delegated legislation; thirdly, of increasing the influence of the House over European legislation the importance of which is growing all the time, whether we like it or not; fourthly, of reorganising the Select Committee structure, which was the central theme of the report; and, fifthly, of improving financial control, but on this matter we say that a further, deeper inquiry is necessary, although meanwhile we have made some quite substantial proposals about it and commend them to the House.
We also considered possible changes in our sessional arrangements and hours of sitting, but we do not recommend any major changes with regard to these matters. We propose two minor changes affecting the times of sitting, and I hope that it will not offend my colleagues on the Committee if I say that those recommendations—Nos. (71) and (74)—may not be as generally acceptable as we hope our main recommendations are.
Our recommendations regarding the structure and powers of Select Commit- 46 tees were so much the central theme of our report that I propose to outline them before I go any further. Our aim here is to provide the House with the means of scrutinising the activities of the public service on a continuing and systematic basis. That must surely be the key to the matter. We received evidence from various sources, including hon. Members, the Clerk of the House, and so on—to whom we are grateful—as well as evidence from outside. That evidence confirmed the view that Parliament has lost control of Government expenditure, and is at present not well enough organised to act as a watchdog over the activities of Ministers and their Departments.
Let us consider what happens at present. I take the Floor of the House first. I know that the Leader of the House, whom I am pleased to see listening to the debate, attaches enormous importance to what happens on the Floor of the House. I fear that we touch only the tip of the iceberg of Government responsibility on the Floor of the House. If we leave aside the ritual dancing, such as Prime Minister's Question Time and some other important occasions, we see that the debates on the Floor of the House vary very much in importance, interest, quality and, indeed, effect.
Question Time serves an important purpose, but it is a very limited one. We understand its limited character when we remind ourselves that in the normal course of rotation, some important Cabinet Ministers come to the Dispatch Box about once every five or six weeks to answer oral questions. They are questioned for anything from 40 minutes to 55 minutes. That is important as far as it goes, but it is limited.
Let us face it, the Floor to the House is not suitable for examining accounts or for examining those specialised or detailed matters which are the day-to-day realities of modern government. What I am about to say is so obvious that it hardly needs stating, but I shall do so in order to build up the picture: that that is why we must have Committees—in order to scrutinise policies in detail, as well as the way in which they are carried out.
The Select Committee on Procedure first considered the present Select Committee structure for doing that work. We found that it was not adequate. Our 47 domestic Committees do not give rise to any problems, because they are working well. I refer to the Services Committee, the Privileges Committee and the Sessional Procedure Committee. I am glad to see present the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving)—where I was born—who is the distinguished Chairman of that Committee. No fewer than eight of that Committee's reports in the 1976–77 Session are now before us, as well as the report that I am introducing. Those reports deal with detailed points of procedure, which the House will no doubt wish to consider. The unanimous view of our Committee was that we should leave the domestic Committees as they are.
Then there are three important Committees which each perform a technical function for us. Those are the Statutory Instruments Committee, which deals with delegated legislation; the Joint Consolidation Committee, which is very technical; and the European Legislation Committee, about which I shall say more later. We recommend that these three Committees should continue.
Then there is the Public Accounts Committee, under the efficient chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). That is in a class by itself. It does not fit into any category with other Committees, as I shall explain. The main function of the PAC is to make sure that money voted by Parliament has been applied to the purposes which Parliament has prescribed. It also has to consider matters brought to the notice of Parliament in the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The PAC's work is a work of audit, principally, and it is surely a separate function from that of examining Estimates, approving expenditure and probing the financial efficiency of administration, which is now done by the Expenditure Committee or, more particularly, its Sub-Committees. The House will recollect that the Expenditure Committee is under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden), who gave evidence to our Committee.
We recommend that the work of the Expenditure Committee and its Sub-Committees should in future be done by departmentally related main Committees, 48 but we say that, for the reasons I have given, the PAC should be retained. We also recommend that its powers and the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be strengthened. We say, above all, that he and his staff should be appointed by and become the servants of the House. Then their impartiality will be beyond question.
I come now to the other Committees. I realise that I am entering into not a realm of controversy—I hope—but a realm in which exceedingly good judgment is required. They are the Committees which are at present responsible for the oversight of government and they have power to scrutinise policy, expenditure and administration. There are five of them. They are the Expenditure Committee, the Nationalised Industries Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, the Overseas Development Committee, and the Race Relations Committee—what one might call a good mixed bag.
Within the limits imposed on them, those Committees have, as we all know, done some most valuable work. I myself will always be grateful to the Science and Technology Committee for the bold stand that it took on the population problem as long ago as 1968–70. It produced a most valuable report, which broke new ground entirely in thinking in public affairs.
The reports of all these Committees bear the mark of quality, and we should all be grateful for the valuable work on which they have been based, but there is too great an element of chance about the way in which their responsibilities are engaged. Also, we find that when totalled up, the responsibilities of these Committees are incomplete.
I hope to make my speech without too many quotations from the report, because everyone can read it, but I feel obliged at this stage to make a couple of quotations from two very important paragraphs—5.14 and 5.15. Paragraph 5.14 says:Despite the considerable growth of the select committee system since 1964 and the changes which have taken place in their powers, the facilities available to them and their methods of work, the development of the system has been piecemeal and has resulted in a decidedly patchy coverage of the activities of government departments and agencies, and of the major areas of public policy and administration.49 —" a decidedly patchy coverage ".
Paragraph 5.15 says:The House should no longer rest content with an incomplete and unsystematic scrutiny of the activities of the Executive merely as a result of historical accident or sporadic pressures, and it is equally desirable for the different branches of the public service to be subject to an even and regular incidence of select committee investigation into their activities and to have a clear understanding of the division of responsibilities between the committees which conduct it.There is not that clear understanding at present. Sometimes we find that there is overlapping—that several Committees are at least eligible to chase the same hare and sometimes have been found to do so. Then there are gaps in their responsibilities, as I indicated earlier.
Assuming that the case has been made for restructuring, on what principle should it be done?
§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer
(Liverpool, Walton): Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the conclusions reached by the Select Committee are almost identical with the conclusions reached by the Labour Party, quite independently of the Select Committee? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] Yes. That may turn hon. Members off, but, independently, the conclusions of the Labour Party's committee on the machinery of government were precisely the Select Committee's conclusions. It seems to me that this underlines the importance of the Select Committee's conclusions, and that there is a real feeling on the Labour Benches as well as on Opposition Benches that there must be a fundamental change in the whole relationship of Select Committees to the Government.
Sir D. Renfon
I must make clear to my hon. Friends that our proposals are in no way weakened by the fact that they commend themselves to our opponents. This is a matter on which we must try to bridge the gulf between the parties, in the public interest. The public get very fed up with us sometimes, merely for the way in which we disagree with each other. When the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is so good as to make the point that he has just made, we should welcome it with open arms. I hope that he will be equally open-minded about proposals coming from the Opposition Benches. From time to time we may commend them to him.
50 If the structure is to be reorganised, on what principle should that be done? What type of demarcation—if that is not a dirty word—should one allow to operate? In our Select Committee we discussed two real alternative ways in which one could organise a complete structure of Select Committees. One was called the functional method and the other the departmental method. I suppose that one could say, for example, that the Nationalised Industries Committee is based on the functional method. One could also say that the Overseas Development Committee is based on the departmental method. I give those just as two illustrations drawn from the present structure.
We decided that it should be the departmental concept. For good, commonsense reasons, which I hope that there is not much need to elaborate, but if anyone wants to see our reasons he will find them set out in paragraph 5.18. We called them "Departmental Committees". If that is too big a mouthful we could call them "DR Committees" and ignore the coincidence.
We do not want a large number of Committees. We say that there should be about one dozen. We grouped several Departments together, naturally. The results are set out in paragraph 5.24. We suggest that the Committee should be established as follows: agriculture; defence; education, science and arts; energy; environment; foreign affairs; home affairs—which includes the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers' Department—industry and employment; social services—which includes the Lord Chancellors' Department of Health and Social Security—trade and consumer affairs; transport; and the Treasury.
We suggest that the Treasury Committee should be responsible for examining the affairs not only of the Treasury but of the Civil Service Department and the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.
The membership of each Committee should average about 10. That would mean that there would be about 120 members in all. That compares with the 105 members of the present Committees. This includes not only the live Committees that I have mentioned but the small Committee under the chairmanship of my hon. 51 and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck), which examines the reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner. I have no doubt that that Committee has been of great help to the Commissioner and to the House.
We thought that since we were restructuring, the PCA Committee should be stood down and its general work done by the Treasury Committee, although individual cases would be dealt with by the departmentally related Committees. I confess that I do not feel strongly about this, but I know how strongly my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester feels. I invite the House and my hon. and learned Friend to study paragraphs 5.33 and 5.34.
I am not surprised to learn that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), who has been an active and helpful Chairman of the Nationalised Industries Committee, will be defending his wicket. I have enjoyed playing cricket with him in the past for the Lords and Commons. He and his Committee, with him as captain, have scored many runs. But I hope that on reflection the hon. Member and the members of his Committee might feel that the time has come to draw stumps and enjoy playing in a new series.
Apart from some of the members of the existing Select Committees who will want to defend their wickets, the only other people who may want assurance about the proposed new structure are past, present and future Ministers and their officials. We can assure them. These new Committees will have a dual purpose. First they will help the House by finding out what Departments are doing and why and how they are doing it, and examining their expenditure. Secondly, they will be of help to Ministers by trying to understand their problems, becoming well informed about their Departments' work and perhaps sometimes warning them about the dark clouds ahead.
Any Minister or future Minister who is worth his salt should welcome the chance to co-operate with a small group of hon. Members who are taking a critical but constructive interest in the work of his Department.
52 In chapter 6 we recommend the strengthening of the powers of the Select Committees, ensuring that they have the staff that they require. We are anxious that once the structure is set up the work of the Select Committees comes, as required, to the Floor of the House. Not each report can be debated. We are short of time for debates on Select Committees at present. In recommendation No. (44) we suggest that there should, in Government time, on eight Mondays each Session, be debates on the reports of Select Committees on substantive motions proposed by the Committees.
That would not preclude either the Government or the Opposition from providing other days for debating reports on Select Committees.
Many hon. Members feel that there are not enough debates on Select Committee reports at present and that those that take place are mainly on "take-note" motions. That does not get us anywhere.
I turn to EEC legislation and the Scrutiny Committee.
§ Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)
The proposed Committees will comprise either more or fewer members than the present Committees. They will be so well armed and so well researched that they will talk more. What effect will that have upon the attendance in the House?
§ Sir D. Renton
It is good to see so many hon. Members from both sides present in the Chamber today. But I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) would claim that the attendance in the House is as good as it might be. The House is empty on many occasions. Because it will be an improvement in the way in which we do our work and because of the arrangements that we have proposed for debating our reports, I should have thought that the attendance should be increased.
§ Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)
I am sure that that is right. Why would anybody think that the House would be worse attended for a well-informed debate than for a less well-informed debate?
§ Sir D. Renton
I am grateful for the intervention, and I make no comment.
53 Our influence over EEC legislation is most important. On our Select Committee we did not see much need for change, but it is essential for the European Scrutiny Committee, as it has come to be known, to have a link with department-ally related Committees. The depart-mentally related Committees should be free to consider the merits of EEC documents that concern their interests. At present the Scrutiny Committee is not empowered to consider merits, but merits must be considered. The departmentally related Committees should do that, and in doing so they should have the briefing material on any European instrument that has been prepared for the Scrutiny Committee and any report made by the Scrutiny Committee.
We are not satisfied with the present arrangements for debating EEC documents and we make various proposals for improving them. They were mentioned by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is a member of our Committee, in a debate 18 months ago. The Lord President will not be allowed to lose sight of the need to get EEC instruments debated on the Floor of the House when the Scrutiny Committee has drawn attention to them.
There is a vital need to improve our procedure for making our own laws. The quality of Acts of Parliament depends on careful scrutiny of their substance and of their drafting. For the scrutiny of their substance, our principal recommendation is that there should be a new procedure at the start of the Committee stage, which would not interfere with our long-established detailed consideration of Bills in Standing Committees but would precede it, improve it and sometimes shorten it. Before the detailed consideration of Bills, as in Standing Committee, the Committee should be able to examine the factual and technical background to a Bill. First, there should be a business meeting of the Committee to decide what evidence should be called and how much time should be devoted to it. There should then be up to three meetings of the full Committee, but in Select Committee form, to enable Ministers and witnesses to be examined in public about the background of the Bill.
We suggest that the Committee should be called a Public Bill Committee to indicate a change in the style and consti- 54 tution. If that Committee finds that three meetings of 2½ hours each in the mornings are not enough, it may ask the House to allow more meetings, and a motion can be tabled for consideration of the House. That would be a valuable experiment which would enable a better understanding of the purpose of Bills tabled, especially by the Government, and of the method of achieving the purpose. In order to ensure a strong link between the departmentally related Committee interested in the Bill and the Public Bill Committee, the latter should always include some members of the former.
On improving the scrutiny of drafting, I am grateful to my colleagues on the Select Committee for endorsing almost entirely the recommendations of the Committee on the Preparation of Legislation, of which I was Chairman. It reported as long ago as May 1975. Since then the Government have refused to accept the principal recommendations of that Committee. They have contented themselves with saying that the recommendations are a valuable summary of the best drafting practice and are taken into account when drafting Government Bills. Drafting has been improving in the last year or two. Textual amendment has become the general rule, which has helped those who have to understand the legislation and follow it in various spheres throughout the country. It has also been of great help in the administration of law. But there is a feeling on our Select Committee that there are still a number of major recommendations that the Government have not accepted which would further improve the quality of drafting and the structure of our legislation.
Members of the Select Committee went into considerable detail in prescribing minimal intervals between various stages of legislation. In paragraph 2.28 we suggest that there should be a Standing Order in the terms set out to prescribe the minimal intervals. There are occasions when, owing to emergency, one cannot follow those intervals as a counsel of perfection. But it should be a general rule that they are followed, and that has not been so in the past three or four years.
In recommendations (10) to (14) of our Select Committee's report, further support is given to proposals made by my Committee, especially the most important 55 one that the Statute Law Committee should undertake a continuous review of the structure and language of statutes and of the implementation of our recommendations.
The ostensible excuse given for the Government sticking their toes in over this was that it was not worth the modest cost. We must all be cost conscious. Much of what I have been saying will lead to greater cost consciousness. But to spend a trifling part of our vast budget to ensure that our laws are well drafted and that there is a simple monitoring process for so doing would be money well spent. Badly drafted laws are a disservice to democracy and bring the law into contempt.
For many years Governments of both main parties have enjoyed dominion over the House of Commons. That is not merely because they have had a majority, large or tenuous, but more because of their power, which has grown over the last 100 years or so, of controlling business, including controlling, in effect, the amendment of Standing Orders. The recommendations in the report would help to restore the balance between the Government and the rest of the House in ways that would be advantageous to both. They would also be advantageous to the people who sent us here.
Therefore, I earnestly hope that as soon as possible after the two days of this debate the Leader of the House will give the House of Commons a chance to reach decisions on our proposals. An early-day motion has been tabled, supported by all the members of our Select Committee, and other hon. Members may support it as well. It reads:That this House takes note of the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure in the last Session of Parliament; believes that during this Parliament this House should decide on the principal recommendations made by that Committee; rejects the practice of tabling Motions to approve only those Select Committee recommendations which the Government favours; and accordingly urges the Leader of the House to provide an early opportunity for a further debate and invites him at the time of that debate to table all the recommendations of the Committee, grouped as appropriate, for consideration by this House.I know that I speak for both sides of the House when I say that I hope that that will be done.
§ 4.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and the Committee on their Trojan effort. There can be few Committees which have worked as hard, met as many times and produced as many recommendations as this one. I believe that many of its 76 recommendations will be widely accepted on both sides of the House and will contribute to the more effective handling of our business.
I apologise to the right hon. and learned Member if time forces me to concentrate upon those few matters about which I have some anxieties.
I ought to remind the House of what happened four years ago when a new Parliament assembled and there were great stirrings among many new hon. Members about our procedure. This hinged substantially on the very long and inconvenient hours that we worked. Indeed, we were told by one hon. Member that as a result we were sex-starved.
As a result of that pressure, the Leader of the House then Mr. Edward Short, now Lord Glenamara, referred to the Sessional Committee on Procedure, of which I was then Chairman, the possibility of Report stages being taken upstairs because he believed that they were the most time-consuming of all the items of business on the Floor of the House. I think that he was very disappointed when the Committee could not accept his advice that they should be taken upstairs.
It is not without interest, therefore, that the present Committee dealt hardly at all with the length of sittings or the inconvenient hours. Indeed, the consequences of its recommendations may well be that we shall work harder than we have done to date.
Some of us insisted then that in looking at reform we should start by asking ourselves what we wanted Parliament to do rather than how much time we wanted to devote to it or how long the hours should be. Although the Committee did not deal with sittings and hours in any great detail, I suggest that these matters are still important, and I hope that the Committee will come back to them on another occasion.
The Committee dealt with what Parliament ought to be about, and it made a 57 number of quite important statements. It said that Parliament had four tasks—to legislate, to scrutinise the activity of the Executive, to control finance and to secure the remedy of grievances. Then it said, in paragraph 1.6:a new balance must be struck, not by changes of a fundamental or revolutionary character…but by changes of an evolutionary kind, following naturally from the present practices.Then it made a statement of equal importance about theneed to retain the Chamber as the focus of the political and legislative work of Parliament, and…must…take realistic account of the size of the pool of Members available and willing to serve.Despite these statements, the Committee's major recommendation for Departmental Committees, if accepted would be the biggest jump that this Parliament has made in modern times. It is not the principle of this matter which disturbs me but the big and sudden jump from the present system to an almost totally departmentalised system.
In recommending these new-style Committees, the Select Committee opts for a degree of specialisation which so far has been largely foreign to Parliament and which, over the years, many hon. Members have resisted. In taking the recommendations as they stand, I wonder first whether right hon. and hon. Members are ready for that degree of specialisation.
§ Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the Expenditure Committee we already have a system of specialisation?
§ Mr. Irving
That is correct, but it is of a limited kind, established for a small number of right hon. and hon. Members, and it does not involve, as these recommendations will, a very large body of the Back Bench strength on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that even on the Floor of the House most right hon. and hon. Members try to concentrate their minds and energies on certain specific topics? Although some may like to range over almost every subject, it is more customary for individual hon. 58 Members to apply their minds to a limited number.
§ Mr. Irving
If my hon. Friend will allow me to develop my argument, he will find that I shall come to that.
I believe that there would need to be a willingness on the part of hon. Members not just to specialise but to devote a great deal of time to doing it, otherwise Committees across the whole spectrum would not succeed. It would also mean the end of the role of the Back Bencher as an all-rounder, which has been typical of the British Parliament. That is not to say that there has been no specialisation, but it has not been as common as it is in the United States Congress, where a member going into Congress expects from the outset to specialise in a very fundamental way. The capacity to develop all-round talent has made the British Member of Parliament competent and self-confident, and it has given him a hearty scepticism both of authority and of the expert. These are valuable qualities for any Parliament.
The difficulty about the new system is that it will work only if hon. Members are willing to give their time and to specialise. This is bound to be at the expense of other activities.
There are dangers in this system which are present in other Parliaments. If the Departmental Committee were successful, and if it were given both the money and the staff to develop, it could develop a bureaucracy which, because of the volume of work that the Committee would be given almost automatically—and it would grow as time went by—hon. Members, not having enough time, would very soon be rubber-stamping the reports of the bureaucracy rather than the work of hon. Members in Committee. I do not say that this will happen automatically, but it is a danger that we ought to take into account.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
My right hon. Friend will recollect that, with one exception, throughout the IPU the number of staff per head of members of legislatures is approximately the same. The exception is Congress, but everywhere else it is the same, although they have departmentally related committees. Bearing that in mind, my right hon. Friend will realise that his fear is not very realistic.
§ Mr. Irving
The point remains intact that it is a specialised system, unlike our own. We are moving to a very different system, and we ought to be quite clear about where we are going.
There is a risk of some of these Committees—not all of them; there are certain hon. Members who are never likely to fall to this risk—becoming so intimately involved with their Departments that their power to attack, where necessary, would be blunted. I should not wish to see that happen.
Particularly in the case of defence, there may be situations where the knowledge that a closely-knit Departmental Committee would learn would separate that Committee from its colleagues in the House. The members of that Committee would be inhibited from making the contribution that every hon. Member should be able to make if so disposed.
There is a risk that an hon. Member could become a second-class Member in some respects because he would not have specialised and therefore would not have access to the information. It would be a courageous Member who involved himself in a fundamental way on the Floor of the House in a debate on a subject on which a Committee had spent a long time in dealing with a Department and its problems. The attendance in the Chamber for debates on Select Committee reports does not seem to indicate the enthusiasm and action that the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire seemed to suggest exists in this respect.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
I am glad that my right hon. Friend referred to the defence Committee, which I believe to be a specialist example. I have served on the Sub-Committee on Defence and External Affairs for four years. That Committee has access to classified information in a way that few other Committees have. I believe that the special case of a defence Committee would not necessarily apply to other Departmental Committees. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a special rather than a general case?
§ Mr. Irving
I accept part of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper). However, I imagine that the point applies to other cases—for example, to the Home Office and foreign affairs in some respects. An hon. Member would have to specialise in one area of activity which would preclude him from many others.
In 1964 there were 240 Committee sittings. By 1977 this figure had risen to 820. Therefore, because of Committee work, the burden upon Members has grown considerably over the last 10 or 15 years. If the new system was to be installed throughout the Departments of Government it would add considerably to that burden.
The report refers quite rightly to the need for a full-time House of Commons. Unhappily, I am afraid that we are still a long way from achieving that. That would mean that the burden would fall upon full-time Members, as it has done in the past, and those Members would be involved in increasing amounts of work. In that way, they would be more unfairly treated than they have been in the past.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I always do. I wish that hon. Members would remember that in making that kind of interruption they are addressing the Chair, and I do not like it.
§ Mr. Irving
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) will make his own speech. He and I have been involved in many Committees in the past and have carried a considerable burden—as have many other hon. Members. It is only fair to reiterate the point that full-time Members and some part-timers, who flog themselves very hard, have carried an unnecessary burden over the years.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
My right hon. Friend has made an important point. However, is he not saying that there are too few hon. Members who are prepared to do the work, not that there is too much work?
§ Mr. Irving
My hon. Friend is conceding the point, but it has not yet been demonstrated that there are enough willing Members who are prepared to 61 specialise and devote the time to an across-the-board experiment of this kind.
§ Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)
There is a queue of hon. Members who would like to be on the Expenditure Committee. There is no evidence that under the present system there is any shortage of willing Members.
§ Mr. Irving
I still believe that if the whole system were redesigned with 12 new Committees with a heavier work load than at present, the pattern would be different. Many Committees now find great difficulty in getting a big enough attendance to keep going satisfactorily.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)
The right hon. Gentleman Says that the work load of the future is likely to be greater than the work load of the past. In recommending 12 Committees and a membership of 10 Members on each Committee—or 12 on some of the larger Committees—between 120 and 140 Members would be involved in the new procedure. That is roughly the same number of hon. Members as are now involved in the existing Select Committee procedure. Therefore, it is unlikely that a greater work load would flow from that change alone.
§ Mr. Irving
The hon. Gentleman places me in difficulty. I feel that 10 Members are wholly inadequate to deal with a great Department. I cannot see how adequate attendance would ever be achieved if there are to be only 10 members. On a number of occasions I suspect that Committees will find it difficult to proceed because they do not have quorums.
The report suggests that the Committee, and particularly the Chairman, will grow in importance. I do not believe that to be self-evident. It is true that the Congress Committee in the United States is important, but that is because it controls legislation. That control will not be conceded to the new Departmental Committees. Therefore, I do not accept that this is sufficient incentive to induce hon. Members to make such a great change. It is a myth that a detailed tag can be kept on the activities of every Department. It is only by carefully selected investigations, backed by the necessary expert advice and staff, that Parliament can hope to deal effectively with the Executive.
62 Those investigations require money. Those of us who have served under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) know that the allocation of funds has always been inadequate. Until recently, the question of staff and accommodation has also been in the hands of the Executive. If the Committees are set up, I do not believe that either the money or staff will be available to make them the success that they can only be if sufficient money, staff and accommodation are available.
There is no doubt that the declassification that may come about as a result of the Bill now in Standing Committee will greatly assist Departmental Committees. However, there is a sense in which the Committees could become a threat to the Chamber itself. As the subject becomes more specialised, the more will the real debate take place in Committee. The House will be even less likely than it is at present to be the forum of the nation. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, increasingly the big debates have been attended by fewer and fewer hon. Members. If the Departmental Committee recommendations are carried out to the extent recommended in the report, I believe that they would further contribute to that decline. If the experiment were tried, I believe that such a total departure from present practice would be unwise.
I began my speech by saying that I do not dissent from the principle. I do not dissent from the view of the Committee in the earner paragraphs of the report that there should be an evolutionary move from our present practices. Therefore, when the Leader of the House considers the early-day motion of the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire I hope that he will allow an experiment, not right across the board but with three or four Departmental Committees. In that way, we can demonstrate in practice whether the anxieties that I feel are real or imaginary.
The Committee recommends a new Public Bill Committee. This seems to be a compromise between those who want a whole Select Committee procedure for dealing with legislation and those who want to retain the present Standing Committees. The difficulty I see in this is that in some cases the idea of taking evidence will be unnecessary, but if it is 63 necessary three sittings will be wholly inadequate for dealing with it. The difficulty there is that to take evidence at three sittings alone may mislead the Committee. It may expose areas where there ought to be further inquiry and investigation but not provide the opportunity for doing it, or it may be that when the first selection is made of the evidence to come before the Committee, the choice will turn out to be the wrong choice in the end. Although I certainly would not want to oppose this procedure, I see weaknesses in it, and I do not doubt that the Leader of the House will deal with those.
§ Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)
I have great respect for the position of the right hon. Member in this House. He has been the Chairman of Ways and Means, and I serve under him on the Sessional Procedure Committee.
He has posed arguments against the recommendation. However, does he not accept the general criticism that this House has lost its power to the Executive? If he wishes us, therefore, to accept his criticisms, ought he not to advance alternative means by which we can check the power of the Executive? I fear that if he is to sustain his argument he should tell us how he would see the House being able to challenge the power of the Executive if it is not to use the method suggested.
§ Mr. Irving
My inclination is to go for a separate set of Select Committees which are independent of Departments but which have adequate money, staff and accommodation to provide the information they need to enable themselves to speak directly and on equal terms with the Executive. I believe that in the end that will be the only way in which the challenge can be made. I accept that the power of the Executive has been growing. It ought to be challenged. This House should find every way it can to ensure that the challenge is made more and more effective.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
Will the right hon. Gentleman expand a little on the important response that he has just thrown out? Many of us would think that if a range of Select Committees were established they would find them- 64 selves obliged, in order to do the work that he indicated, to allocate themselves among groups of Departments. The right hon. Gentleman might well find that he was led, as the Committee was, to approximately the same conclusion as is to be found in the report.
§ Mr. Irving
I have not in any sense said that there is not a place for an experiment in Departmental Committees. In view of the work that has been put in by the members of the Committee, it would be most unfair of anyone to condemn out of hand the proposals that have been made. I believe that we should move in an evolutionary way and not abandon everything that we have done over the past few years to an entirely new system. We should take a few selected cases and work in the next four or five years to demonstrate whether they provide the most effective way in which the House should move. That has been the principle upon which this Parliament has worked for many years.
The Committee recommends that the circumstances in which the Government should give their approval to EEC legislation should be embodied in a declaratory resolution. The report sees the balance of advantage lying in a firm commitment that the Government should not give its approval to EEC legislation prior to debate where the Select Committee on European Legislation has suggested that a debate should take place.
On the face of it, that seems entirely reasonable. It is correct that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave an undertaking as far back as July that he would examine this proposal. In answer to a question in December from my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) he said that he was still looking into the matter, and I think that he was having very great difficulty. It is a difficulty that worries me. The essence of the whole Community system is the package deal. If Ministers are to be virtually forced to seek the approval of the House for everything they do, the process of negotiation will be hamstrung at Brussels and we may get less out of it than we ought to.
I concede at once that Ministers ought, where there is time, to get the approval of the House. My right hon. Friend the 65 Leader of the House in July, I think during the debate on the Summer Adjournment motion, said that there were only three occasions in the period under review when Ministers had not done that. Two of them concerned agriculture, and one fisheries. The Minister in question had come back post haste after making that decision to report his reasons to the House.
My only difficulty is that there are Members in the House who would push the House into perhaps the Danish system, where Ministers are mandated before they go to Brussels. Control is exercised by the Folketing market committee. That would be unsatisfactory for us. First, that does not represent control by Parliament, because the market committee is made up of senior Members of Parliament, and much of the communication and approval go on over the telephone between the chairman of the committee, his colleagues and the Minister in Brussels. The power is delegated to the market committee and, therefore, is not in any sense a real control by Back Benchers or Parliament as a whole—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Let me remind the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) that it is his privilege, from time to time, to try to keep in order Committees of this House. He should set a good example.
§ Mr. Irving
I hope that the fact that the Committee has included this recommendation in its report will not lend support to those who would shackle the processes of government in their dealings with the Community. I want Ministers to keep this House informed, but I do not want an essential departure from the procedure that has been adopted in domestic affairs where the Minister has some latitude and is subsequently called to account. I would not like to think that the Committee's report lent support to people who had other motives related to dealings with Brussels based on some kind of hostility to our membership of the EEC.
I come now to the question of voting. One of the recommendations of the Committee is that Questions should be put 66 forthwith at 3.30 p.m. That would be a retrograde step. It is not many years since we quite deliberately abandoned Divisions at 3.30 p.m. On many occasions those were formal Divisions, which required Members to abandon Committee work and other work in various parts of London and the rest of the country to come to a formal Division at 3.30 p.m. I hope, therefore, that that proposition will not be accepted.
The other proposal is that we should require 200 Members to vote for the suspension at 10 p.m. There are many occasions when the suspension is purely formal and where there is no great controversy. There may be a maverick Division, or no Division. To require 200 Members to be present at 10 p.m. would not reduce the amount of attendance that Members put in because, whipping being what it is, Members would be required to be present to support the proposition at that time, however important or unimportant it might be. Therefore, I hope that as we want to do more work while trying to avoid some of the strain, that proposal will not be added to the burden of hon. Members.
I am sorry that I have had to devote my remarks exclusively to critical comments. There is much in the report to be welcomed, and I hope that the House will take it very seriously.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
As I so greatly respect the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving), as the whole House does, I find it a particular pleasure to speak immediately after him and to make common cause with him at once in paying a strong tribute to his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams) and all the other Members who served on the Committee and produced a most valuable report. A Trojan effort, the right hon. Gentleman called it. Indeed, I hope that this volume is a Trojan horse to enable us Back Benchers to recapture some of our freedom and authority, which, in the interests of democracy, we so badly need again to practise and to fulfil.
I wish also, as the first to speak after him on these Benches, to pay an extremely warm tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), whose 67 speech was a model of clarity and conciseness. Knowing how often he has had to be in the chair of the Committee, I am sure that the whole House, in paying tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Warrington, will wish to pay its tribute also to my right hon. and learned Friend.
I am delighted that we are having this debate. It is a significant occasion. Before coming into the Chamber, I was asked by a commentator "Is this to be just another Members' grumble?" I replied—I hope that the House will think it right—that the message from the debate will be not that but something far different and very positive. We know exactly what must be done, and we intend to see that it is done. My answer to the right hon. Member for Dartford, when he asks where the facilities are, is that the House of Commons must see that the facilities are provided to do the job.
I have said many times inside the House—I have had the good fortune myself to initiate one debate—and outside it in writings, in broadcasting and in other ways that we Members of Parliament are now failing effectively to exercise our traditional and constitutional duty. My right hon. and learned Friend made that point very clearly, and the theme was echoed by the right hon. Member for Dartford. As one of our Clerks, Mr. Ryle, says in the latest publication of the Study of Parliament Group, it is a central tenet of our constitutional description that Ministers are—or, I would say, should be—subject to full parliamentary control. This place, this Parliament, is the forum where the exercise of government is publicly displayed and is open to scrutiny and criticism, as in a democracy it requires continuously and fully to be.
Since we have in the United Kingdom virtually unicameral government, single-chamber government, this House of Commons has especial responsibility. The report does not deal in detail with the first requirement for that, namely, that there needs to be, for all the disparate elements in the House—the official Opposition, the unofficial Opposition, the unofficial unofficial opposition, the minorities, Back Benchers, and so on—an opportunity to bring before the House matters which they regard as significant.
68 Perhaps there are adequate opportunities—or perhaps there are not, as my right hon. and learned Friend hinted, because of the way in which we use or, rather, misuse, abuse or do not use Supply days, because of the way in which, for all its length, Question Time is largely now a farce, and because we fail to control expenditure. I have said previously that we no more control expenditure in the House than Canute controlled the tide—and it will be recalled that he did not, in fact, set out to achieve that unworthy and absurd aim.
I do not for a moment accept the view of a previous Leader of the House, quoted at the very beginning of the report in paragraph 1.4, that the Governmentmust be able to secure from Parliament any necessary extension of their executive powers.The truth and the tragedy is that they have secured far too much already in the extension of their executive powers. Indeed, it has provoked me in the past, as it has my noble Friend Lord Hailsham in his admirable Dimbleby lecture of a year or two ago, to say that such was the extension now of Government power that we have in our nation, in effect, no longer a democratic Government but an elected dictatorship. There is too much truth in that observation for comfort.
Nor do I accept the second point made by a previous Leader of the House, quoted in paragraph 1.5, when, dealing with criticisms of the relationship between the Executive and the legislature now, he suggested that the House should get through the work demanded of it by the Government more expeditiously and then we Back Benchers might be found a "worthwhile role" after that, as though we were a group of children who must be kept amused. What damned impertinence such an observation is.
The second requirement is to give Back Benchers the opportunity to get at the facts. Of course, that will be a burden, as the right hon. Member for Dartford said, but it must be done. If there is to be effective scrutiny of the Government and public airing of issues of significance in order to encourage the electorate, the people of the nation, more to participate and to involve themselves in the processes of democracy, parliamentary techniques must help Members of Parliament to obtain all the information which they need.
69 What is the context of this debate? It is one of enormous growth in legislation. Right hon. and hon. Members will be familiar with the figures, now added to by all the paraphernalia from the EEC. I shall not particularise. We are all aware of the hugeness of it. There is the growth of legislation. There is the growth in the activity and influence of the Government. There are today 7,386,000 people employed in the public sector—nearly 30 per cent. of the whole working population. That is one measure of the growth of Government activity. Right hon. and hon. Members can, no doubt, think of many other examples for themselves.
I say only that that is the reality. That is what has happened. It may be right or it may be wrong—I am not arguing that—but that is the situation which exists and with which we have to grapple.
Then there are other factors—for example, the growth of the tendency to bypass Parliament, for Ministers to have discussions outside Parliament. There is the growth in the power of the parties, the presidential status of the Prime Minister, and, by no means least, the use of the patronage system.
There are so many areas now in which Parliament is not involved but should be. Moreover, where it is involved, as we all know and as the world outside knows, the truth is that we are not doing our work properly and we are not adequately scrutinising the activities of the Government.
What do we do? We have this report with its recommendations. For my part, with some reservations, I agree with the central recommendation on Select Committees, that all existing Select Committees except the Public Accounts Committee and the internal House Committees be replaced by a number of independent departmentally related Committees. I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend and others that I regret that the decision has not been to keep the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. Perhaps that is something that we can discuss further, since it seems to me that that Committee has a special experience.
I could not understand the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Dartford that if we were members of Committees we should become, in effect, second-class Members of Parliament. I have never felt 70 myself to be a second-class Member of Parliament as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, or of the Expenditure Committee before that—when I became its first Chairman—or of the Estimates Committee or any other Select Committee. I may be a second-class Member of Parliament, but all I can say is that I have never felt myself to be one.
There are present in the Chamber two members of the Public Accounts Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Watkinson). As they know, the Public Accounts Committee has not yet fully considered this report of the Procedure Committee. We are to take evidence from the Comptroller and Auditor General, and we shall visit the Exchequer and Audit Department in March. I was the first Chairman ever to visit the Department. It was the first time in the history of the House that the Public Accounts Committee visited that Department.
We did not have any representatives—I use "representatives" advisedly rather than "delegates"—on the Procedure Committee. As none of our members was part of the machinery of the report, it may be that we shall wish to report formally to the House in due course. I hope that the House will welcome any advice that we may be able to offer. In the meantime, following informal discussions of the PAC, I am able to describe a view to the House and give certain opinions of my own.
First, under the head of the PAC, I must say how much my colleagues and I appreciate that which appeared in the report about the Committee and its work. Paragraph 8.3 states:We have no doubt that the existence of the PAC has contributed significantly to the maintenance of high standards in the handling of public money in the Civil Service.Paragraph 5.28 states that the PAC's role isone of the few reasonably effective procedures for exercising control, albeit of a post hoc nature, over the bureaucracy.There is a lesson to be drawn from that. I propose to attempt to draw it. Before I do so, I must tell the House how glad the Committee has been to note that the Procedure Committee has recommended that the PAC should continue 71 in its present form. That recognition of the specialised and particular nature of its investigations and work is most warmly welcomed.
The decisions are right for various reasons. I say that not merely because I have the honour, for the time being, to be the Chairman of the PAC. All the experience that I have had in the past and as a member of the Committee convinces me, first, that the PAC is effective and worth while. Its work has led—I have seen this—to substantial improvements to accounting procedures and control mechanisms in government. I have seen that its partnership with the Treasury—its natural ally—and with other Departments has been wholly constructive. An alert PAC is a help to good government. I hope that from time to time we get better value for money in government expenditures than we might otherwise get as a result of its work.
The report refers to the scope of the work of the PAC. I am not sure that I fully understand what is intended. Our experience has been—I am sure that my PAC colleagues will confirm what I say—that we are able to examine matters in such depth as we think necessary. Let the House witness some examples. The PAC has turned its attention to North Sea oil, cash limits, housing corporations, public service pensions and comfort letters. There was a great area in which control of expenditure by Government was nothing like as exact as it might have been. Happily that expenditure has been brought under proper control. We do not need any new authorities to give us an opportunity to examine matters in greater depth.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when the Procedure Committee referred to the scope of the audit carried out by the PAC it probably had in mind that the Comptroller and Auditor General considers only half the total expenditure and in general he investigates waste and extravagance rather than whether money has been well spent or whether expenditure was effective?
Mr. dn Cann
The hon. Gentleman is a great expert on these matters. He has much knowledge and always has something constructive to say. He has referred 72 to two matters that I had intended to cover. First, the hon. Gentleman asks whether the Exchequer and Audit Department should move into what in commercial terms is called management audit. He knows that that work is already beginning on a somewhat experimental basis. If my colleagues agree, I hope that we may be able to continue with that work. We need no extra powers for that.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman comments on whether we have all the access that we require. I regard it as a severe drawback that we do not have full access. It is surely ludicrous for the House to vote thousands of millions of pounds to bodies such as the British National Oil Corporation and the National Enterprise Board and to deny to an organ of the House the right to have a proper examination of how that money is being spent. Those matters require attention. Those are matters that the Procedure Committee had in mind. I totally agree with its report on that score.
§ Mr. du Cann
I am glad to know that my remarks are confirmed by my right hon. and learned Friend.
I turn to comments on the way in which the PAC does its work. Certain specific recommendations have been made. There is, for example, the recommendation that the reports of the PAC should be formally transmitted to other Select Committees before debates take place. My colleagues and I agree absolutely about that.
It has been suggested that members of other Select Committees be invited to our sittings and that perhaps we should have joint sittings. On the whole, the view of my colleagues is against that. It is thought that that procedure would slow the work of the Committee and might take away its specialised nature. It is possible to complain that the PAC is not an ad hoc body but a—
§ Mr. du Cann
I am glad that there are still some classicists among us—notably, the right hon. Gentleman.
Many have complained that the PAC is merely a post hoc body, an inquest, so to speak. Perhaps it should undertake more of a contemporary examination, as 73 the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) suggested. However, once we get away from dealing with figures and with the business of audit we shall change the nature of the PAC completely. I should not be prepared personally to agree to that.
I turn to the role and status of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It has been suggested that the Exchequer and Audit Department should be merged with the district audit. I see nothing against that. I do not have a particular view about that. However, I hope that that suggestion is considered during the announced review of the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
There is an important passage that bears on the intervention of the hon. Member for Norwich, South and deals with the accounts that should be examined. That is recommendaetion (67). That requires a little more thought, and again it should be discussed at the time of the general examination.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Procedure Committee when it states that the independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General should be maintained and, if anything, enhanced. It is not necessary for the Comptroller to be a servant of the House for that to be achieved. The Comptroller is totally independent at present. If that has to be more clearly demonstrated, so be it. What will be needed and what will be proper is for his duties to be clearly defined by statute. That should take place when the examination is complete and when the 1866–1922 Acts are replaced by something more modern.
I am sure that the House will agree at once when I say that we should be proud of the high standards that are set by the staff of the Exchequer and Audit Department. There is no doubt that new entrants should be graduates. I am sure that the House endorses that members of the Department should take the full professional accounting qualifications of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. Whatever the qualifications may be, it is clear that the tasks performed by the Department are discharged at a high standard. The men and women in the Department are loyal, devoted and competent. The House may like to note that some of the senior staff 74 have been appointed to the European Court of Auditors. Recently the Comptroller and Auditor General has been asked to take on the audits of the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Office. That speaks well for the health of the Department.
§ Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell and Wishaw)
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised the point about the staff of the Department. I accept what he says, but, if it is so excellent, does he think that the Comptroller and Auditor General should sometimes be selected from among its number?
§ Mr. du Cann
I see no objection to that. I recently returned from Canada, where I attended the centenary of the Public Accounts Committee, which was celebrated in the House of Commons in Ottawa. The hon. Gentleman, who is a student of these affairs, will know that the Comptroller and Auditor General comes from outside the ranks of Government service. The criterion is to appoint the best man for the job. We have been fortunate in that the appointees to the post of Comptroller and Auditor General over a long period have been of outstanding merit.
§ Mr. English
In Canada there is a Comptroller General and an Auditor General, as there used to be here before 1866. One of them came from industry; he was president of the Ford subsidiary in Canada. The other is an ex-Treasury civil servant.
Mr. da Cann
The Procedure Committee took evidence from the Canadians. We have a good deal to learn from them. The hon. Gentleman is right. We cannot compare the offices exactly, because they are split in the way that he described.
To return to the general, it is proposed that the Select Committee structure be reorganised to provide the House with a means of scrutinising the public service on a continuing and systematic basis. It is the words "continuing and systematic "that are so important. I agree totally with that.
I now come to the reservations. There are two needs. The document suggests the heads. There are no bodies. There are no eyes. There are no arms, it seems to me. What is the reinforcement suggested for these Committees? It is to be 75 one Clerk, one executive, one secretary and perhaps a specialist adviser or two. I regard that as wholly inadequate to enable the Committees to do the work they are required to perform.
The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire mentioned the United States. We all know that the systems are different. I shall not labour the point. However, the comparison between what happens in the United States and what happens here is astonishing. There are 400-plus members of the House of Representatives, 11,000 professional and clerical staff, 100 senators and 6,500 members of staff. I am not arguing for that. We must consider that, besides that personal staff, there is the Congressional research office and the general accounting office. That is a brilliant organisation. In addition, there are the office of technology assessment and the Congressional budgeting office.
§ Mr. du Cann
A pork barrel. That is exactly what we do not have. I am not arguing for that.
What does any of us have here? Each of us has a secretary, or perhaps half a secretary and a bit of a research assistant. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and as Chairman of the Liaison Committee in the House, I have one secretary. That is all. I have neither research assistant nor funds with which to Obtain help to do the work that must be done. The resources of the Library are excellent. However, this is the point. We have so little now that it is absurd. We shall not obtain the best results on the cheap. Money spent to buttress the democratic system in the United Kingdom is well spent. In the end it may well lead to substantial savings and to a much more efficient performance by the Government. Without staff, these Committees will not live up to the high hopes of the authors of the report, whose aims I so strongly support.
One proposal is that the Exchequer and Audit Department should be called upon increasingly on a part-time basis on secondment. That is not a wise proposal. Audit is a wholly specialised function. Its integrity is precious and must be preserved. The idea that the staff of the Exchequer and Audit Department 76 should be pursuing—putting the matter at its worst—hares started by sundry Members of Parliament is injudicious, to say the least.
This document talks about evolution. I do not believe in evolution. Matters have slipped too far. I should sooner preach revolution—although not quite the brand espoused by the cricketer, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), who is sitting below the Gangway.
The report was generous enough to say that the Public Accounts Committee was effective because the Exchequer and Audit Department put a loaded revolver in its hands. What we need to agree to do, to back up the practical ideas in this report, is to establish a number of groups of researchers and experts, to be generally available to Select Committees and the House. I suggest that there should be four—a budgetary and economic group, a social services group, a technological group, and, by no means least, a commercial group. These people should be employed by the House of Commons and should be on our staff and be supervised and controlled by the Commission. They would be researchers only. The question "What of the Clerk's Department?" immediately comes to mind. These researchers would be wholly independent of that Department. The Clerks would be the only body of people responsible, as it were, inside the House of Commons. I am arguing that the establishment of the Committees is not enough. They must be given teeth and strength. The way to do it is to give them research facilities.
There are two other requirements. One matter was touched on by my right hon. and learned Friend, who said how the work that we had done in the past had been piecemeal and patchy. Those sentiments are contained in paragraphs 5, 14 and 15 of the report. I made some proposals in a pamphlet some time ago. The Procedure Committee was kind enough to cross-question me about them. It did not agree with me on my proposals, but at least we were arguing in the same direction. The Committee made a brilliant suggestion. It said that the Chairmen's Liaison Committee should be developed and that we should make that responsible, to some extent, for the overall direction and command of this scene. We had the opportunity of discussing that informally in the Chairmen's Liaison Committee, 77 which agreed that if these ideas met with the approval of the House it should be turned into a formal Select Committee with specific duties. I shall spell them out.
It was suggested in the report that the Committee should advise on the choice of debates, the monitoring and timing of Government replies to reports, on staffing and facilities and on Sub-Committees, and should consider all matters relating to Select Committees. That is understood. It is believed that the Liaison Committee could perfectly well play that role. That is an important comment on the points made by the right hon. Member for Dart-ford, who is a member of that group. He was not able to be present when we discussed this matter in the group.
We think that the Select Committees should appoint their Chairmen and that the Chairmen should be members of the Chairmen's Liaison Committee. Most of us do not think that additional members of that Committee are needed. It is through this opportunity for direction, leadership and co-ordination that the ideas of the Select Committee on Procedure can be made to have merit.
Thirdly, there must be proper time for debates on Select Committee reports. What is proposed in the report is perhaps a little on the modest side. Even so, I am sure that the Leader of the House will find this difficult to accept.
So what is to come? If I may end as I began, I want to make it clear that those of us who believe in reform will not be denied it. We are determined upon it. We know that if, as a House, we are not working as efficiently as we should be, the fault is ours and nobody else's. It is not the Government's fault or the Opposition's fault. It is our fault. We are determined to remedy the position.
Any fool can talk. Many fools do, and many fools do no more than that. This is now the time for action. The general election, as we all know, is imminent. But the view that I am professing—and which my right hon. and learned Friend and others profess, and no doubt others will profess—cuts across the party divide. I sense, and have done for a year or two, that there is in this House a strong resolve and a unity of purpose. We ask the Leader of the House and the Shadow Leader of the House for a commitment to be given in this matter, just as I have 78 asked for a commitment from the leadership on each side that the remuneration of Members of Parliament should be properly dealt with immediately after the general election in the context of the forthcoming Boyle report.
Why cannot we get these matters out of the way and agree between us what needs to be done? We want a clear and untrammelled undertaking that what is proposed here—and, I hope what I have added to it—will be implemented, and promptly implemented, in a new Parliament. The time will not wait. If anything, we have delayed far too long, and we should be highly critical of ourselves in that regard.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)
It is a pleasure for me to be following the right hon. Member for Taun-ton (Mr. du Cann), not because he is the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and certainly not because he is Chairman also, I understand, of the 1922 Committee, but more particularly because he is the Chairman of our Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairmen. In that respect I can speak with a considerable amount of authority, because we have had our steps guided by him now for a number of years—five years in my case—and I have always found him to be very fair-minded and assiduous in the way that he approaches the task. By way of a postscript provided more or less by the right hon. Member himself, I should like to welcome him this evening to the revolutionary ranks—for the first time, I believe.
I start by referring to the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and his kindly but seductive references to our joint endeavours on the cricket field. I am sorry to have to tell him that recent events in Australia—and the fateful collusion between the England pace attack and Mr. Kerry Packer—have made me more or less unseducible.
More seriously, I speak as Chairman of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries—a Committee which will be, so to speak, sentenced to death if we are unwise enough to adopt the principles suggested in the report. It will come, therefore, as no surprise to the House that I intend to devote most of my speech to 79 explaining why this particular recommendation is, in my view and in my Committee's view, totally misconceived. Although, inevitably, I shall be critical of the Procedure Committee, I should not want the House to think that I regard the whole of the report as bad. It is a curate's egg, if ever there was one.
The section dealing with the powers of Select Committees to send for persons, papers and records—and, in particular, the enforcement of such powers—will, I think, be generally welcomed by all those who are concerned to strengthen the powers of the legislature vis-à-vis the Executive. It was, as the report acknowledges, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries which brought this issue to the fore a year ago, as Sir Charles Villiers would be the first to testify.
I welcome also the recommendation for the provision of "Select Committee days" on which substantive motions could be moved. Too often in the past valuable Select Committee reports have been allowed to moulder on the shelves, and there is much too much good in our reports for that to happen to them.
I am much less convinced by the recommendations about the staffing of Committees. Although rather obscurely phrased, the report seems to be advocating a move towards a battery of Congressional-style experts. The Clerk of the House is quoted as stating that it was doubtful whether the value of reports.would be enhanced if they become reports of specialists which had received the formal endorsement of a Committee.The report goes on to state thatThis view was supported by a number of witnesses. We disagree with them.One of the witnesses quoted was myself, and perhaps I could remind the House of what I said on that occasion. I quoted my Professor of Public Administration at Sydney University—a ripe old Tory, incidentally—who had a saying that experts should be on tap, and not on top. I concluded:I am not sure that I would not argue loud and long for our amateur system (if I can call it that) as opposed to the ' top pro' system that you and I are well aware exists in Congress ".I stand by that view.
There are improvements to be made, no doubt, but I am sure that the present 80 system is about right. It allows for ad hoc, specialist advice to be provided where necessary—and very valuable it has been in most cases for our Committee. It leaves the basic responsibilities where they should be—that is to say, with elected Members who are chosen by the House to report back to their colleagues on the position as they see it, backed up primarily by Clerks of the House who, as full-time servants of the House, have no other loyalty than to the House, and whose experience makes them particularly qualified to interpret the will of Members.
I now turn to my main theme, which is the need to maintain a Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, whatever other changes are made in the Select Committee structure. I start from the presumption that there must be some form of accountability of the nationalised industries to Parliament. They account for more than one-tenth of the national product and for nearly one-fifth of the total fixed investment of the country. Nor is there much dispute that accountability should principally be exercised by means of a Select Committee. This was the view taken by the House in the 1950s and it is not at all challenged by the Procedure Committee. It believes, however, that the tasks at present undertaken by my Committee could be subdivided and reallocated to the proposed "shadow" Departmental Committees.
There are four reasons why my experience over 13 years tells me that this is wrong, and I am overwhelmingly supported by those whose experience is even greater. The first is purely practical. I do not believe for one moment that the six or seven relevant Committees would begin to get near the amount of time and coverage that my Committee devotes to the nationalised industries, given the limited size proposed for them and given the breadth of their other responsibilities.
I remind the House that there are at present no fewer than 46 industries within my Committee's terms of reference. That includes, of course, a number of gas and electricity area councils. In total, our brief covers 46 so described nationalised industries.
§ Mr. Kerr
Yes. When we gave evidence in November 1977, the Clerk to 81 our Committee gave some figures for the amount of time devoted by my Select Committee to the affairs of the nationalised industries. The reference is at question 815 in volume II of the report.
Perhaps I can bring that up to date. In our last Session my Committee held a total of 112 meetings. So far this Session 28 meetings have been held. In addition, written evidence has been received from all the industries, and oral evidence has already been taken from many industries. I do not believe that, for example, the proposed Environment Committee would be capable of devoting three days to the affairs of the British Waterways Board, as we have just done. If any hon. Member thinks that this matter is unimportant, I invite him to Sub-Committee A's hearing of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment tomorrow.
Incidentally, a number of hon. Members, led by the hon. Member for Maid-stone (Mr. Wells), have tabled an early-day motion which suggests that the nationalised industries should be more accountable to Parliament. I look forward especially to their support in resisting this proposal, as inevitably there will be less proper accountability in the proposed new system.
Secondly, the Procedure Committee recommendations will effectively prevent any across-the-board inquiries into matters affecting all the nationalised industries. At this very moment my Committee is carrying out two such investigations. One Sub-Committee is doing what is, in effect, a pre-legislative hearing of the proposals affecting consumers and the nationalised industries. It is our intention to have a report and a mass of supporting evidence available for hon. Members when they consider the Bill to be introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection in a few weeks' time.
Another Sub-Committee is looking at the whole question of the relationship of Ministers, Parliament and the nationalised industries. On Wednesday of this week spokesmen for the nationalised industries' chairmen's group, five of the most senior chairmen, will be appearing before us to discuss matters such as board salaries, the way in which Ministers appoint boards, whether Ministers should 82 be empowered to give specific directions to an industry, how far board chairmen are accountable to Parliament, and so on. Those are all matters of great and legitimate interest not only to the House but to the country. One feels bound to ask in all modesty which of the Procedure Committee's proposed Committees could carry out such a task.
Thirdly, and linked to the previous argument, the proposals will inevitably mean that different nationalised industries will be treated differently by different Select Committees. Most of us know how each Select Committee develops its own philosophy and approach, depending on such factors as its composition, the temperament of the Chairman, and so on. Over 22-plus years, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries has adopted a common approach to such matters as the need to distinguish between commercial and social objectives. It has also been able to apply lessons learnt in one industry to another.
That approach is valued by the industries, which begin to see what Parliament wants and intends. All this could be lost if we were to end up with perhaps an Industry and Employment Committee chaired by, say, the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), recommending the Post Office to abolish all parcel activities because they were uneconomic, or a Transport Committee chaired by one of my hon. Friends recommending British Rail to carry parcels free of charge for pensioners because it was a social duty.
The fourth objection is perhaps the most fundamental of all. The whole balance of the Procedure Committee's report is tilted towards more effective control of the Executive by the legislature, and many of the recommendations are designed to keep a better watch on the activities of Ministers and their Departments. That is fine. Where the report goes wrong, in my view, is in its totally unwarranted assumption that nationalised industries are merely an extension of Government Departments and are therefore best lumped in with them in an omnibus system of control.
That was not what Parliament intended when it passed the relevant nationalised industry statutes. I am very sorry that the Procedure Committee does not appear to have grasped that essential difference. 83 It was not for want of being told. It was spelt out quite clearly by Sir Leo Pliatzky, representing the Treatury, at question 594, and it was reiterated by the Clerk to the Committee at the end of our evidence, when he said:There is the argument also that Departments are different from nationalised industries…. It was brought out throughout the inquiry when the Committee was being set up; and it was confirmed to you by Sir Leo Pliatzky from the Treasury when he said, When you are talking about the nationalised industries, you are moving on to a quite different animal.' If a Departmental Committee has nationalised industries tagged on, there might be a danger of it trying to look at them in the same way. I think that what Mr. Kerr has been saying is that they cannot be looked at in the same way "—by Parliament, at any rate.That is why they were set up in the way they were under the legislation that set them up.In short, Parliament intended the nationalised industries to operate more like commercial enterprises, free as far as possible of day-to-day Government control. Of course, there must be accountability. That is what the inquiry I have already referred to is all about. It is perhaps worth pointing out to members of the Procedure Committee that one former nationalised industry chairman has already told Sub-Committee E of my Committee that in his view the industries should no longer be accountable at all to Ministers or civil servants but only to the Select Committee. This may possibly be an extreme view, but it epitomises the essential point that the Procedure Committee, dominated as it was by members of the Expenditure Committee, has, in our view, missed.
§ Sir David Renton
The total membership of the Procedure Committee was 16, and out of that number there were only three members of the Expenditure Committee.
§ Mr. Kerr
I was being obliquely flattering to members of the Expenditure Committee, feeling that they pack a punch at least five times as powerful as that of 84 their fellow members. If they decline to accept my compliment, I must continue.
It is not Parliament's function to shadow the industries as it is proposed to shadow Departments. It is more the function of Parliament to protect the industries from undue interference by Ministers and civil servants—and long may it continue to be so.
On all those grounds there seems to me to be an unanswerable case for the continuation of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. It will be argued that I am prejudiced, and no doubt that is true. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am pleased to have agreement. But the case for the Committee does not rest on my words alone, nor on those of my parliamentary colleagues in the Committee. There is ample external evidence of support for the work that we are doing. In the memorandum submitted to the Procedure Committee, I stated the views of NEDO and the National Consumer Council. In the debate last year on the British Steel Corporation I quoted the views of two distinguished national industry chairmen, Sir Frank Price and Sir Daniel Pettit. Let me now briefly add the views of three more people.
The first is an academic who has made a close study of these matters, Professor John Heath of the London Graduate School of Business Studies. He has said:There is a case for having a Select Committee which is specialist on matters concerned with nationalised industries. I think that the experience and wisdom which can be accumulated over a period of time is and must be enormously valuable to Parliament.Secondly, in a memorandum to us, a major nationalised industry, the British Gas Corporation, had this to say:The Corporation has noted the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, and in particular the recommendation that the work of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries should be undertaken by departmentally-related committes…While resepcting any proposal that safeguards the role of Parliament, the Corporation would be disappointed if the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, with which a continuing good working relationship has been established, were abolished.[HON. MEMBERS: "A little cosy."] A little cosy, yes. But we come to something else in a moment.
Finally, I shall quote the views of a man uniquely qualified to speak on these matters—a former Chairman of one of 85 our Select Committees, a former Conservative Minister and a former chairman of a nationalised industry—Lord Boyd-Carpenter. He made this comment:I think it is a good system as at present to have one Select Committee with overall responsibility for the nationalised sector; because, after all, there are so many problems in common emerging perhaps at different times in different industries…. The members of the Committee acquire experience of them. If you are too departmentalised, perhaps you come on to one of these problems for the first time and without the background information which is—as I know from my Public Accounts days—so useful in questioning witnesses as well as in drafting the report.
§ Mr. English
My hon. Friend and I agree on many parts of the report, but we disagree here. I think he may possibly agree that he is being a little heavy-handed. The Select Committee suggested that to cope with matters related to all nationalised industries in common there should bea joint sub-committee representing the departmentally-related committees most directly concerned with the nationalised industries.That is in paragraph 5.39 of the report.
The argument, therefore, centres around whether there should be a Joint Sub-Committee or whether it should be a separate Select Committee. I think that that puts the matter on a rather lower plane than saying that we suggested the complete abolition of anything relating to nationalised industries in common. As my hon. Friend knows, I chair a Sub-Committee of the Committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden). Other hon. Members chair its other Sub-Committees. We do not feel deprived because we are a Sub-Committee, as my hon. Friend says.
§ Mr. Kerr
I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend's arrangements are working so well, but in my experience of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, with the enormous amount of work that we find it necessary to get through in order to discharge our responsibility, this simply would not work. That is my opinion, and it is also the opinion of my fellow Committee members.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)
If the hon. Gentleman takes that view—which is perfectly valid, though not necessarily supported by everyone—how does he deal with the other main issue that comes out of the Procedure Com- 86 mittee's report? Why, with the breadth of nationalised industries, spread over industry and employment generally, is it not possible for the experience that he argues people need in dealing with a particular nationalised industry to come from those who are looking at the Department within whose responsibility the nationalised industry falls? With 46 nationalised industries, there is obviously something to be gained from dealing with all of them across the board, but there is an equally valid argument for dealing with them through the Department.
§ Mr. Kerr
This is very difficult, because it is a question of degree as regards both sides of the argument. I am persuaded that a departmental recruitment along the lines suggested by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) would be too specialised and not sufficiently broad in its appreciation. Therefore, the experience that one gets in dealing with what, after all, is a different animal—that is, a nationalised industry as opposed to a Government Department—may perhaps be more difficult to acquire, but none the less more valuable in terms of the effective scrutiny of such bodies by the House. That is my belief. It is perhaps not easy to prove, but it is certainly based on my experience of 13 years.
§ Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)
Does my hon. Friend feel that if the nationalised industries were dealt with through these Departmental Committees the whole examination would be too diffuse and would lack the sharpness that Parliament should insist upon when examining nationalised industries? They are, after all, separate from any Department and are, indeed, very important to the economy.
§ Mr. Kerr
No. I am sorry, but I have had three interruptions on the trot, including one by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West. I am not taking a holiday. I intend to finish my speech and let the debate continue.
87 I have no personal vested interest in the continuance of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. After all, the proposal to pay Chairmen has not yet been agreed. I speak, however, from 12 years' experience of the Committee and from the experience of the last five years as Chairman of the aforementioned Select Committee. It is my strong conviction that we have a clear job of work to do. Whether we are doing it right is, of course, a matter for debate. I am prepared to let our record speak for itself.
I have tried to show that it would be folly to throw away the achievements of 22 years for the sake of some new scheme which may sound administratively convenient but which would only harm the proper relationship between Parliament and the nationalised industries. Such a relationship is vital to the well-being of the country. It is for this reason that I confidently trust that all hon. Members will join with me in overwhelmingly rejecting this part of the Procedure Committee's proposals.
I hope that the tone of this debate will be enough to persuade the Government to withdraw that proposal. However, if they do not, I give them notice that I shall fight it at all stages by whatever means available. I do not believe that I shall stand alone in this endeavour. In the words of the bard in Henry V, on our Select Committee we fully intend, as a united and determined group, toStiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage.I warn the House that we are pretty hard to stop when we put our heads down and our backsides up.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) put forward a determined special plea on behalf of his Committee. We look forward to the contest that lies before us. I think, however, there are some issues he should keep in mind.
First, the Procedure Committee, of which I was a member, had no intention of speaking ill of, or misjudging the record of, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. Far from it. The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries was a proving ground for the very 88 method of investigation which we are advocating.
From the earliest years, when Parliament was feeling its way with great uncertainty over the whole institution of a public corporation and how it should be held to account, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries played an important part in demonstrating that a kind of analysis can take place in which all hon. Members can agree on observations critical of the way something is carried out and bring them to bear in public debate. That has been a very notable service.
I worried a little when the hon. Gentleman seemed to be suggesting that the purpose of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries was to protect the industries from Ministers and civil servants. Although the Select Committee occasionally has to fulfil that role, I hope it is entirely secondary to its responsibility for holding industries to account to the extent that the House feels they should.
I ask the hon. Member to bear this in mind in his considerations. What should be the focus of Parliament's interest in nationalised industries? Should it be the structure which they happen to have in common? Should it be the fact that they are all in public ownership—that one fact which draws together the National Coal Board, the Ordnance Survey, the Bank of England and the British Railways Board? Should a similar institutional framework be the focus of our interest, or the functions of a particular industry and the relationship of those functions to other matters in the same area, such as the oil industry and energy, the railways and transport as a whole, the Ordnance Survey, and other bodies which make use of this service?
In any industry that one cares to look at, I think it can be more strongly argued—I hope the hon. Gentleman will admit that it can be at least as strongly argued—that the scrutiny of a nationalised industry may have to be in conjunction with other bodies—some of them public and some of them entirely private enterprise—engaged in the same activity and that Committees will want to look at those activities rather than the common thread of public ownership and the various institutional matters which the industries have in common. That was the basis of our belief that the Committee on 89 Nationalised Industries was no longer the most appropriate way to examine nationalised industires. The more that the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston stresses the enormous breadth of industries with which he now deals—over 40 nationalised industries—the stronger we are in that conviction.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is very close indeed to what we do at the present time? For example, although the BNOC is a new member of our stable, we have had before us the BP organisation, which is not a member of the stable because technically it is not a nationalised industry. However, we have never felt inhibited from obtaining all that it had to tell us on oath.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Gentleman puts a good case that the Committee has made the best of the present system, but I stick to my convictions that as a House our interest in the nationalised industries ought not to be mainly in the fact that they are all nationalised but rather in the role they play in any given area which at a certain time is ripe for examination.
There are a host of recommendations in the report. Indeed, in listening to some hon. Members I am tempted to conclude that so long as we cross off the ones which they specifically referred to as being against—I have the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) partly in mind—we can take as read their support for the remaining 60 or 70 recommendations. Let us hope that that is true. Many of the recommendations will not feature in the debate because they are quite small matters. However, they are important, and at some stage the House must be given an opportunity to decide upon them.
I simply want to refer to certain main areas, the first of which is the Public Bill Committee proposal. That is a proposal that there should be a means by which, before we set out on the detailed examination of Bills, and a determination clause by clause of what the law should be, we should be given the opportunity to examine witnesses. This was looked at in great detail. There are differences of view about how far we should go along this road at one step, and to what extent such a procedure might be abused as a means of delaying the Committee 90 proceedings. The Committee arrived at a compromise view, which it presses strongly on the House.
I think that most hon. Members have had experience of the very unsatisfactory nature of our present procedures, especially when dealing with some technical Bills. I believe that people outside, including many bodies that gave evidence, feel strongly that they have not been heard and that the Committee has gone on to argue in detail points about which Committee members knew far less than did people outside the House.
I ask hon. Members to think of the common situation that arises on Finance Bills or other technical Bills, where an hon. Member puts forward an argument having been advised by a group of people on how it will affect them. The Minister then reads a carefully prepared reply, stating that such a proposal is quite impossible and that it will affect this, that or the other. The Committee member then has to decide on the spur of the moment whether he has a sound case or whether the Minister's argument is inadequate. If he is lucky, he may be able to consult someone sitting in the public seats. There will be an exchange of notes, and he will come back and produce an even more obtuse argument, which he probably does not understand because it is entirely second-hand. The Minister will obtain a similar note from a civil servant, and the two will then engage upon a further discussion about which neither has any real understanding. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that such a situation arises.
That is the sort of thing which the Committee felt ought to be dealt with by examination of witnesses. In that situation, the most obvious thing that should happen is for the man sitting behind the Minister to consult the man sitting in the public seats. After all, they are the two people who understand the matter under discussion, and they might be able to arrive at a compromise. We should get such people before the Committee as witnesses. As it is, they are silenced and the whole argument takes place second-hand.
The Public Bill Committee would give us a limited opportunity to question witnesses on the impact of the detailed parts of legislation—a matter which our present procedure does not sufficiently allow for.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely in what he is saying. There is another bad feature of the present system, which is that only some members of the Committee are briefed by some organisations. If bodies such as the Law Society have something to say about a Bill, surely the information—doubtless very valuable—ought to be made accessible to all members of the Committee.
§ Mr. Beith
I agree. That is a matter for the organisations concerned. At present I am serving on the Standing Committee on the Education Bill, and that does not seem to be short of people who are prepared to circulate large amounts of advice to all Committee members.
Again, using the channel of one particular party, or one particular Committee member, is not necessarily the best way of hearing the views of an organisation outside. It might be much better if we allowed such people to speak for themselves rather than suppose that they could channel their views only through a particular political viewpoint on the Committee.
I turn to the procedure in Committees on Statutory Instruments. This is another example where our present procedures are a nonsense, and are regarded as a nonsense by anyone who observes them. The fact that we are unable to come to any conclusion at all on what may be an important change in the law and the fact that we can only decide not to report to the House—and then we are obliged to do so because our procedures make it inevitable that that fact is reported to the House—justifiably make people outside very cynical about the way in which we conduct our procedures.
The weakness of the procedure on statutory instruments has become more evident as "framework legislation" has proliferated. The more legislation is passed, the implementation of which depends upon statutory instruments, the more important it becomes to have an effective procedure dealing with those statutory instruments. At present it is "take it or leave it", and the Committee cannot even deliver an opinion on the matter. It has no means of saying that it is dissatisfied with some parts of an instrument. It has no means of throwing the matter back to the Government. The 92 whole procedure is farcical and is an insult to the time and effort which hon. Members devote to Statutory Instruments Committees.
The Procedure Committee has recommended modest reforms that would at least enable substantive motions to be taken in Committees dealing with this delegated legislation, and which in some circumstances would enable us to bring these matters back to the Floor of the House for further discussion. I believe that to be an essential reform, and I press it strongly.
The Committee spent some time considering the sittings of the House and the need so to organise them that they make the proceedings as effective as possible and the lives of hon. Members as reasonable and tolerable as possible. There was considerable difficulty in reaching agreement. I believe that arises out of a number of things. One is the suspicion that if we vote for wholesale morning sittings we shall be no better off at the end of the day and that the proceedings of the House will continue to be extended far into the night. The lack of enthusiasm with which hon. Members greeted our proposal to make it difficult for the Government to break the 10 o'clock rule illustrates the problem. Any procedure that one devises runs the risk that it will be so heavily used by the Government that large numbers of hon. Members will be kept behind to carry it out. Therefore, whichever way we turn we are in some difficulty in making it more difficult for the Government to keep the House going to unreasonable hours night after night.
Another point of difference with regard to hours affects those of us who do not live in London, who do not seek to make our home in London and whose constituencies are far from London. We have a very different view about how the business of the House should be organised from those hon. Members who are London-based. To us, it would be very much better if the proceedings of the House were highly concentrated. We do not mind late nights so long as they are on a Tuesday or a Wednesday. But, for those of us whose constituencies are very far flung, it would be difficult if proceedings started early on a Monday or went on later at the end of the week. If we are to do an effective job in our constituencies and have some family life, clearly 93 the arrangements of the business of the House must reflect the problem of travelling 300, 400 or 500 miles to Westminster.
As the Committee indicated on a matter on which it divided, I believe that full-time membership of the House of Commons is needed and is becoming ever more so. At present, many hon. Members are far more than full-time. In order to discharge a wide range of responsibilities in the House, one has to work far longer than would be contemplated in almost any other job. That burden is the greater if a substantial number of hon. Members do not participate fully in the responsibilities of the House. At least the Committee is prepared to go so far as to say that full-time membership of the House of Commons ought to be the assumption upon which its proceedings are organised.
I stand by that view. Of course, I do not think that the House of Commons can take any stricter a view than any other body as to whether people should be entitled to moonlight and to undertake other occupations. After all, the practice is widespread in many fields. On the other hand; I think that the organisation of our business should be based upon the assumption that membership is expected to be full-time. If there are those who would be prepared to work still more unreasonable hours—I am sure that there will be some—doing another job at the same time, that must be a matter for them.
The last of the areas to which I want to refer is the Select Committee proposal, which has been the main subject of debate tonight. We want to see more of them, so that their work is continuous and systematic in its scrutiny of the Executive. We wish to strengthen them. We wish them, in certain circumstances, to be able to get debate on a motion through the filter of the Chairmen's Liaison Committee, so that their proceedings are brought to the notice of the House of Commons.
We accepted in the Procedure Committee that there will be many Select Committee reports which do not merit debate on the Floor of the House. That was a general view. However, there are some which do merit it. If it is a criticism of debates on reports of Select Committees that they do not attract interest and are not well attended—which cannot be said of this debate—it is at least partly a criticism of the fact that we are never able 94 to decide anything. Time and again, hon. Members are invited to come to this place to take part in a debate arising out of a report of a Select Committee, without having any opportunity to express their views at the end of the debate by a vote on the proposals put forward by the Select Committee. Frankly, why should hon. Members who do not wish to make a speech on the subject trouble to attend these proceedings? I am not at all surprised that some of them do not do so.
There are people who oppose the Committee's recommendations on Select Committees; there are, indeed, people who should oppose them and whose philosophy means that they must oppose them. There are those, for example, who take a carte blanche approach to Government, saying that it is the job of this place to install a Government and let them get on with the job for five years, and at the end of that period they go back to the electorate to see whether the electorate wants the same Government or a different Government. In the meantime, the job of Parliament is to keep the battle going, to remind the electorate of what the differences of view between the two major parties are, and those between the other parties represented in the House, but to leave it at that and simply to say "If we were in charge, we would be doing things differently".
But there are now decreasing numbers of Members of Parliament who are prepared to accept that view. Certainly outside the House, our constituents rightly expect us to take a far more continuous interest in what the Government are doing and to scrutinise them from day to day.
However, with the assumption on the part of some people that Parliament should simply install Governments and let them get on with the job, there goes another view. That is the fear of consensus. It is most effectively expressed by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I am sorry that he is not with us today, because he would have a contribution to make to this debate. I think that he and others like him believe that there is a terrible danger that agreement will break out all over the place and that fearful consequences will result, with Members of other parties upstairs in Committee rooms finding against their better judgment that they agree with each other that the Government are wrong in 95 a particular respect or that policy should move in some direction or other.
The hon. Member for Bolsover ought to be opposed to this reform, if that remains his view and the view of others like him. It is not the view of those who believe that the bredth of government is now such that there will be many matters on which any objective assessment will lead to a common conclusion amongst any reasonable group of people that something is going wrong and that something needs to be done about it. That has been the experience of Select Committees such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries and others over many years.
It is a proven experience. It ought to be resisted as a model only by those who think that the preservation of party differences is more important than the effective scrutiny of the work of the Executive. Clearly, I come into the latter category and I am firmly opposed to the two approaches that I have outlined. Parliament must be able to scrutinise, monitor and, at times, perhaps frighten the Executive. Not to do so, in any case, is to ignore the fact that Ministers are not really in control of every aspect of government. It is too big for them to be in control. Therefore, the work of Select Committees is that much more important.
The right hon. Member for Dartford took the view—it is a quite widespread view—that specialisation would bring many dangers with it and that Members would not any longer engage in a wide range of activities and would not be the good all-round chaps that he obviously thinks we are. The proposals that the Committee has put forward would not do away with other parliamentary institutions—Question Time, for example, and the whole range of legislation. I have no great inclination to be highly specialised, but if I had my constituents would soon stop it. They write to me on every subject under the sun and they expect me to take an interest in an enormous range of subjects. Consequently, I do so. There are some things to which I devote extra time, and there are some things in which I am particularly interested, but I can never become completely specialised. One of the attractions of the job, in any case, 96 is that one is concerned with such a wide range of matters.
I am conscious, however, of the fact that this lack of specialisation means that we are constantly being brought into fields where technical knowledge goes extremely deep and our knowledge is very shallow indeed. We in this House would be lost if some hon. Members did not devote some of their time to specialisation. I cite the example of the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann). This House would be very much poorer if he had not devoted considerable time and attention to our financial procedures and to the need to reform them. He was a very stimulating witness to the Committee on that point. The fact that he has built up this experience is extremely valuable.
The right hon. Member for Dartford came very near to saying, when he suggested that members of Committees would know a lot about things and have access to information and that others would not, that it would be better if we were all ignorant rather than allowing some Members to acquire considerable knowledge. We cannot afford to do that in a legislature which must be concerned with a great many important and complicated subjects.
§ Mr. Sydney Irving
Does the hon. Gentleman accept the point that if these are to work, the degree of specialisation will be greater than ever before? That automatically precludes Members from doing many of the things that they have been doing up to now.
§ Mr. Beith
I do not believe that it can or will preclude Members from taking part in debates and questioning on a wide range of other matters. Some of those Members most known for their specialised interests at the present time are still to be found taking part in other debates. It depends very much on the attitude of the individual Member, but I see nothing in experience so far to support that view.
I do not accept the view of those who say that one can combine the Select Committee and the Standing Committee role in a full-blown system in which the same Committees deal with legislation and scrutinise the Executive—at least, I do not think that we can do so at this stage, even though there might come a time when it would be worth considering. 97 We would destroy the character of the Committees which carry out scrutiny, because the natural emphasis of Governments on their desire to get through their legislation would import into our Select Committees the procedures, habits, loyalties and, indeed, the personnel in the form of the Whips upon which the legislative programme of the Government is maintained. That would be to the detriment of the very different kind of work which the Select Committees are being asked to do.
There are many other things to which the Committee gave some attention but to which it might like to give more, such as the financial procedures of the House. There are the implications for this House of our European membership and the procedures that we need to follow in that direction—on which we have started, but there is much more to be considered. There may be yet other matters such as the implications of devolution, but we can afford to wait until after 1 March before embarking on such a venture. However, the Committee as a whole would see little point in going very far in any of these matters unless there is some hope of getting something done on the very large range of questions with which it has already dealt.
Therefore, I ask the Leader of the House when the House will be able to decide on these matters. I surmise that the Leader of the House is not very keen on many of these proposals. They do not sit well with some of his cherished convictions, and he may not be a million miles from the hon. Member for Bolsover in some of the views that I attributed to him.
The Leader of the House has a responsibility to the House to enable us to make decisions. That is why he must table motions. We do not expect him necessarily to vote for all our proposals. That would be beyond the wildest dreams of optimism. But it is his responsibility to allow the House to come to decisions on these matters. Therefore, he has a responsibility to table motions which will enable it to do so. If he does not do that, I believe that opinion, not so much inside the House but certainly outside it, will give way to a great deal of cynicism. People will ask whether this place will ever change its ways while it consists in large part of members of Governments, 98 Members who would like to be in Government and Members who wish to form the next Government and do not want to see any of the apparatus of Executive power removed or damaged in any way before they get there.
§ Mr. Beith
The hon. Member is kind enough to refer to the Liberal Party. He knows where I stand on these matters. We have worked together effectively in the Committee. He has a good Liberal streak in him. I hope that it will come out more strongly over the years.
Failure of this House to reform itself will lead people further to write off Parliament and its willingness to come to terms with the problems that face us. That tendency already exists. The Leader of the House should do nothing to encourage it. He should not allow it to continue. If he fails to give the House the opportunity to decide these matters so that Members can be counted on the views that they hold, the cynicism about Parliament and its ability to attend to the affairs of the nation and to exercise its responsibility will increase.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Mr. James Boyden (Bishop Auckland)
I can go a long way with what has just been said. I remember vividly taking building regulations through the House and having to deal with building legislation in Committee. The forum for those matters was better when it involved outsiders than it was with civil servants. I suspect that many millions of pounds have been lost in building activity because building regulations are rather academic, master-minded by civil servants and not based on the needs of the builders. That is true of much legislation.
On the general principle, I agree that Parliament's powers in relation to public policy and public expenditure need to be strengthened. The report suggests many ways in which that can be done. To some extent I should be flattered by the finding of the Procedure Committee that the work of the Expenditure Committee should continue and develop. But I find it a little hard that that continuation and development should be achieved by abolishing the Expenditure Committee.
The dilemma which faces both sides of the House and the Procedure Committee is in paragraph 5.15, in which the 99 Clerk of the Committees draws the attention of the Committee to the fact that the way in which the Select Committees cover the activities of the Government is uneven. I do not know whether the Clerk of Committees was asked what his view was about the House as a whole.
I feel that the activities of the House are uneven in a variety of ways. There is not much logic about its activities. I commend the Procedure Committee for trying to introduce more logic, but I think that its logic has been too Descartian and that it will not achieve the results that it wishes to achieve.
I turn to the proposal to set up 12 Departmental Committees and to abolish the Nationalised Industries Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. So that I cannot be accused entirely of being soaked in Expenditure Committee matters, I picked up the annual report of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee and read what Lord Shackleton said about the Select Committee on Science and Technology. He said:When the Select Committee on Science and Technology was set up in 1967, very largely on the initiative of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, it seemed likely that our unofficial committee would have a somewhat diminished role. Contrary to expectation, however, its activities have developed.I wish to stress the importance of building on that foundation. I was once a delegate from the Council of Europe to a parliamentary and scientific conference in Lausanne. One of my functions was to explain relations between Parliament and science to members of the Council of Europe. I was astonished at how superior our arrangements were for Parliament and scientists as compared with those of most European countries. If we throw away this tradition and development of scientific and parliamentary committees, we shall regret it.
It is not enough to say that the matter will be dealt with by a Departmental Committee. That Committee is to cover education, science and the arts. That represents as much of a rag-bag as do the Expenditure Committees. It would be damaging to cut off the science and technology Committees, their development and expertise, purely on the grounds of false logic. My hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) 100 made the same case for the Nationalised industries Committee. He said that there would be a loss of continuity and a destruction of the value developed over the years. The dilemma is that there cannot be a pure system of Departmental Committees.
There are bound to be loose ends and overlapping. Overlapping in our present Committees has been solved. There is little overlapping today. No improvement will be created by a structure of 12 Committees which is artificially operated.
I turn to the question of the 12 Committees. Is 12 a number which has been plucked from the air? Why was not 10 or 11 chosen?
§ Sir David Renton
We did not think of a number and decide how the subjects would be split. We considered the Departments and how each of them could relate best to a separate Committee.
§ Mr. Boyden
In my judgment we must have at least six additional Commitees. For example, Committees dealing with overseas development and race relations should operate parallel to a Committee on foreign and Commonwealth affairs.
There is bound to be transdepartmental activity. Loose ends cannot be avoided. Why should the Department of Industry and the Department of Employment be lumped together? There is a strong argument for saying that there should be a Committee for each of those Departments. There is an equally strong argument for saying that there should be separate Committees for health and for social security.
I believe that 12 was chosen to reduce the number of Committee members. I believe that there should be 16 or 18 Committees, which would involve about 180 members. It is difficult enough to man the Select Committees. It will be even more difficult if relatively large numbers are involved. Pressures will develop within the Committees to split and to increase the number of Committees.
It is well known that when a Department throws up a new idea, a new Department is suggested. That was true in the case of the Department of Education and Science and the Minister with responsibility for the arts. It is the nature of bureaucracy and administration. Along with this almost certain proliferation of Committees there will be the 101 pressure to proliferate parliamentary bureaucracy, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) has mentioned.
It is true that we shall be much more economically minded than Congress. I was reminded, when I was in Washington a few days ago, that the traffic jams there are caused by the staff of Congress. There are 18,000 of them. I trust that the same situation will never develop in London. If it does, I imagine that I shall gain support for one of my pet themes, namely, the removal of Parliament to Marston Moor.
The paying of Chairmen will have much the same effect in increasing bureaucracy. At the moment, hon. Members are perfectly willing to act in a voluntary capacity as Chairmen. There is considerable competition, certainly for the chairs of the Sub-Committees of the Expenditure Committee. A number of matters will arise within a year or two and fossilise this structure every bit as much as the Procedure Committee is saying that the structure is currently uneven and lacking sufficient capacity to cover a wide area.
One difficulty, certainly for the Expenditure Committee, is that members are not content with fairly modest progress. They are not content with consensus. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that a large number of hon. Members were not in the mood for the sort of developments which this proposed structure will produce. I have a simple solution to the Committee problem.
Some time ago the Procedure Committee recommended an enlarged Expenditure Committee. If the Expenditure Committee were enlarged to 80 members, plus the Chairman, all of the subjects listed at paragraph 5.24 could be accommodated in the same way as they are today. Extra staff would be needed. I am not against extra staff, because these Committees need them. Obtaining experts to staff these Committees is a much more serious and difficult matter than the Procedure Committee seems to be aware of. It would be difficult to get experts in certain areas to join a Committee on a permanent basis. There would be no career prospects for them. The present system is cost-effective. We get most of the experts we need, they are paid a 102 modest sum and they certainly do not dominate our proceedings. They do not produce reports which are simply endorsed by a Committee. There would be a tendency, if experts were appointed in large numbers and formed a body of opinion, for that to happen.
I do not wish to be destructive. Even if the recommended Committee structure is approved, I believe that some effort will be made to gather the threads of previous Committees. I agree wholeheartedly that there is a need for further debate in the House and for a much swifter response on the part of the Government to the reports of Committees. There are a variety of administrative matters to be dealt with, covering such issues as travelling and the widening of the Committees' power. Such issues could make for more effective parliamentary control. While I endorse the general principles of the Procedure Committee's recommendations, I hope that the House will be prepared to accept my simple solution, which is to maintain the Committees to which I have referred and to build up a number of additional ad hoc Committees.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)
When I became Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy I was puzzled by the use of the alphabet to produce certain codes. One such example was FOMAS, which was a joke by the admirals and which meant "Flag Officers Mutual Admiration Society". The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) is Chairman of a Select Committee, as I am. I do not intend to support him in toto in his plea for the preservation of his Committee. I hope, however, that by the time I have completed my speech he will be wholeheartedly in support of the preservation of the Select Committee of which I am the Chairman. This Committee deals with the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration—the Ombudsman, as he has come to be known.
Before making my special plea, I must stress that the subject we are debating tonight is of the most profound importance. In the last century there were massive changes in the structure of our democracy. There was the total restructuring of our local government set-up to 103 make it democratic. There was an expansion of the franchise to make this place truly democratic. In this century, since the enfranchisement of women, there have not been any major structural changes. There have, however, been some less major developments. One of the new moves has been the bringing into play of the Ombudsman.
It is important that we adapt our procedures to make them more efficient. I had the interesting experience of meeting Mr. Kanellopoulos, who was Prime Minister at the time of the colonels' coup in Greece. From talks which I had with him and others who know the political scene there, it seemed clear that democracy failed for a while in Greece not so much because of corruption or the basic hot-headedness of the Greeks but because of the sheer inefficiency of the democratic system. It was sheer inefficiency which brought the Government down in the end. We are, therefore, debating a most important subject. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is an absurd system until we look at the alternatives. We must always strive to ensure that our democracy works as efficiently and smoothly as possible.
The House will be grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and his Committee for the enormous amount of hard work which they have done in compiling these reports and for the way in which he has presented the case to the House.
§ Sir David Renton
I must point out that I was not Chairman of this Committee. The Chairman was the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams).
§ Mr. Buck
The position of my right hon. and learned Friend is ingrained in my mind because he was in the chair when I had the privilege of giving evidence before the Committee. We are grateful to him and the entire Committee for the work that has been done. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, we are here considering the more effective and powerful use of the functions of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) put it in another way. He emphasised that the 104 central theme of the debate is the greater efficiency of the working of democracy.
I am attracted to the idea of dividing the House into subject Select Committees. My only doubt is how far this will further take away the attention of the country from this place, and how far it will defuse and take away the significance of what happens on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Powell
The hon. and learned Member referred to dividing the House into 12 Committees. He will be aware that not more than one-fifth of the House would be required to man the Committees, on the recommendations of the Committee.
§ Mr. Buck
Yes, I am aware that the House will be divided into microcosms, which will become Select Committees. It was in that sense that I meant divide the House, not in any more technical way. I shall be interested to hear the views of the Leader of the House on this basic recommendation. I find it attractive, but I have some reservations about its taking away the focus of attention from the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
It is not so much taking the focus away from this House as taking hon. Members away from the House. As a member of a Select Committee for many years, I am strained and stretched between a decision whether to continue in that Committee in the afternoon or to attend an important debate here. There was a dictum that the Chamber came first, but sometimes that is difficult to follow.
§ Mr. Buck
My hon. Friend is bearing up well under the great burden. The point that I make is the same but expressed differently. If hon. Members are not here, the focus goes away from the Floor of the House.
In the considerable time that I have been in the House there has been a decline in the significance of what happens on the Floor of the House. The debates that we have had in past weeks have been poorly attended. When right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Front Bench have been making speeches, there has been a small attendance. That illustrates my reservation about the recommendations in this able report. The Leader of the House has deplored in the 105 past that the focal attention has been turned away from the Floor of the House.
Turning to the recommendation affecting the Committee of which I am Chairman, there is the bald recommendation that the reports of individual cases from the Ombudsman should be scrutinised by the appropriate departmentally related Committee. It suggests that the Treasury Committee should consider matters relating to the powers and functions of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and also the Health Service Commissioner. The Committee of which I am Chairman has considered this recommendation, and as a Committee we are against it.
Let me say why by taking an example. We recently had a case brought to our attention in which the Ombudsman had found there to be maladministration in the Treasury. It had taken the Treasury three years to deal with a man's tax affairs. There was a recommendation that an ex gratia payment be made to that man and his wife because over the three years he had paid a few hundred pounds additional taxation.
After the finding of maladministration, the case was considered by the Committee of which I am Chairman. We called before us the chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue. We cross-examined him courteously but firmly. Within a week of his giving evidence we had a reply from him that the Treasury had changed its mind, and had admitted the maladministration and was prepared to pay the money. That was a case of a citizen whose grievance was redressed and compensation given. How would that work with the recommendations put forward in the report?
The case would come under the scrutiny of a specialist Committee dealing with Inland Revenue matters and the Treasury. But would it even get a place on the agenda? It would have a low priority. That Committee would be dealing with the massive flow of our balance of payments and broad Treasury policy. It would be fortunate for the man if his case were given attention by the Select Committee of the Treasury at all.
Although this matter was not pressed to a Division when it was considered by the Procedure Committee, an amendment was tabled. I am authoritatively told 106 that it was not pushed to a Division because of considerations of time. But the Committee was not at one on this recommendation. In discussions with individual Members one finds that there is a weakening in attitude on this recommendation, partly perhaps because of the strength of academic opinion on the need for the retention of this Select Committee and the attitudes of the successive Parliamentary Commissioners themselves. In his last report the Parliamentary Commissioner strongly emphasised the need for and the value of the back-up provided by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.
I shall not detain the House as I have dealt with these matters before, but I am glad that the Leader of the House is paying close attention. There have not been great structural changes in this century. But a new institution has come forward that has proved itself.
My hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) was recently partly responsible for a conference under the auspices of the Hansard Society and others. Academics attended from all over the world. There were indeed Ombudsmen from as far away as Hawaii and Fiji. Although it is tempting to visit those two places, I am not suggesting that my Select Committee does so. Those academics who attended regarded our record over the past 10 years as a success story. We have shown an ability to take institutions from abroad and adapt them to our needs.
A review of our Select Committee over the past 10 years indicates that the system of having an Ombudsman, as adapted for our use, is working. It provides this House with a valuable additional weapon. A letter to a Government Department or a Minister may easily solve an ordinary case. But when something has gone badly wrong, as Members of Parliament we cannot look at the books. The Ombudsman can. He can cause the wrongs to our constituents to be put right in a significant and useful way. The case has not been made out for a change.
It is a vital sphere, for nothing becomes more frustrating to the electorate and more undermining of democracy than if it is seen to be working unfairly or inefficiently. Those of us who are concerned with the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner, and the Ombudsman himself, are in business to see 107 that the public generally get fair and efficient administration. The system is working well at the moment. It seems to me that no good case has been made for a change in the structure operating in the House at present.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)
I am very happy to begin by joining those right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed the gratitude of the House to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. Williams), Chairman of the Select Committee, to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), who stood in for a time when the Chairman was unfortunately ill, and to all the members of the Select Committee for what is a monumental job of work. When I look at the mass of paper through which they waded, when I consider the hours of oral evidence to which they listened, when I see their persistence in questioning their witnesses and when I observe how many times they met and for how long they deliberated, I am led to the conclusion that this is a very special piece of work. We have had good reports from many Select Committees, but this is one that puts us in the special debt of all those who contributed to it.
Three of the last four speeches to which we have listened were made by Chairmen of various Select Committees, each of whom said, in his own words, "I agree with all that is proposed in the report except for the abolition of my Committee". I have never heard special pleading so arrant and so naked in my life. The House will be relieved to hear that I am not the Chairman of any Select Committee and that I do not propose to make any special pleading. If, later on, I make a special comment about one Select Committee, it is one that I ceased to be a member of nine years ago and am not likely to be a member of again. Therefore, I have no interest in it to declare. The only Select Committee of which I am a member is the Privileges Committee. If this report had proposed the abolition of that Committee, far from my taking up a lance to engage in special fighting on its behalf, I would have warmly supported the abolition proposal. I dare say I should not have been alone in that.
108 Over the years, a number of myths and misconceptions have grown up about the work of the House and about what improvements in the Select Committee system might do to that work and how we might most effectively carry out the obligations laid upon us. I have been hearing these myths again and again, and I want to say a word or two about some of them.
The first is the myth that I first heard propagated many years ago—I am not sure that it was not by my right hon. Friend who is now Leader of the House, though he was far from that in those days—and that I last heard enunciated a few moments ago by the hon. and learned Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck), namely, that an effective system of depart-mentally related Select Committees would destroy the effectiveness of the House.
The reason why that proposition is a misconception is that it is based on the assumption that the House is effective. It is impossible to destroy an effectiveness that is not there. It is manifestly clear—it was stated so well today, not for the first time, by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann); I heard him state it very well recently on the radio—that in respect of the major responsibility of the House, which is to exercise control over the Executive in matters of Supply, policy and administration, we have become less and less effective with every year that has passed. That is not because we have become less active, less conscientious, or less able with every year that has passed. It has come about simply because the rapid escalation in the volume and the rapid intensification in the complexity of the work of Government in legislation, in delegated legislation and in administration—that enormous blowing up of Government that is instanced by the increase in the size of the service which the Government have at their disposal—has widened tremendously the gap between the knowledge that is available to Ministers and the knowledge that is available to Back Bench Members.
In considering the relative powers of the Front Bench and the Back Benches, the basic fact is that knowledge is power. My right hon. Friend the Lord President is not more powerful than I am because he is better than I am—I reckon that 109 we are a good 50–50 if it comes to a race. He is much more powerful than I am because he knows a lot more than I do, and the reason is that he has a lot of people to tell him what is going on, and I have not. The reason why he knows a lot more than I do is that he has access to the books, and I have not. It is this which has made the ability of Parliament to exercise control over the Executive grow dimmer and dimmer with every year that has passed.
In paragraph 1.5 of the report, the Select Committee sets out clearly its understanding of its terms of reference. It refers to the fact thatthe balance of advantage between Parliament and Government in the day to day working of the Constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government to a degree which arouses widespread anxiety and is inimical to the proper working of our parliamentary domo-cracy.One would have to range far and wide within this House and outside it before finding any substantial body of opinion that dissented from that judgment. It is a very weightly judgment, and it is a very serious matter for us all.
I was a little surprised to read that the Select Committee quoted support for this unchallengeable proposition from the last but one Leader of the House. I hope that in the course of time my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who throughout his political career has been the greatest defender of parliamentary democracy that I have known, will see the importance of this.
Another myth that has been referred to in the course of the debate and that has deluded some of my hon. Friends is that Select Committee work creates consensus politics. One answer to that lies in the proceedings by which this Select Committee reached its conclusions. It does not seem much of a consensus to me when there are 44 Divisions on the Chairman's draft report. Many of the Divisions were broadly on party lines. There were only five in which there was a clear vote with one party on one side and the other party on the other, but a large proportion of the others had a broad party division with one party dissentient going over to the enemy.
That provides a complete refutation to the thesis that when hon. Members get into a Select Committee that all start 110 to think alike. It even answers the opposite argument that I have also heard—and the two are mutually exclusive—that when hon. Members get into a Select Committee they do not think for themselves; they follow the party whip. Manifestly on the evidence of the proceedings that are carefully set out in the report, neither of those two extreme propositions holds good.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) referred to the difficulty of manning up the Committees. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) reminded us that the proposals would cover only one-fifth of hon. Members. The House is full of willing Members. There are over 630 willing hon. Members; some are willing to work and the rest are willing to let them. It is the same of any group that I have come across anywhere in the world. There is always a core of those willing to take on chores and there are others who prefer to let them do so. It does not seem to me that that permanent characteristic of our society—including the section of society that is housed in this building—will be changed one way or another by an alteration in the structure of Select Committees. That seems to be a pure red herring.
Will there be a lower attendance in the House if there is a more effective system of Select Committees? I have a job for a research student who is studying for his thesis or is making research in order to get some credit at his educational establishment. That is—if he could bear it—to sit in the Gallery of this Chamber for a period of time to tot up the attendances of those who are members of Select Committees and those who are not. Without knowing the answer, as a betting man I will put money on the proposition that the percentage of members of Select Committees who attend the Chamber is higher than the percentage of those who are not members of Select Committees.
Everybody knows that it is always busy people who do things. It is always the busy chap to whom we go when we want a job done, because he is the only chap with the time to do it. I do not agree with the fancy idea that, somehow, specialisation is destructive. The suggestion is that an hon. Member who is appointed to the Select Committee on defence will be able to think of nothing but defence, and that 111 his poor constituents who come to him for help about their pensions will get a dusty answer It is suggested that he will say "I do not know anything about pensions. I spend all my time on defence." No hon. Member would see that as anything but an absolute burlesque of the attitudes of hon. Members and the way in which they behave, and it is insulting to think of hon. Members in that way.
I disagree with one part of the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire. He was optimistic that he could sell—I do not use the word in any pejorative sense—the pro-positions of the Select Committee to hon. Members. In that optimism I am sure that he is justified. However, he was also optimistic that he could sell them to Ministers and would-be Ministers. I am less optimistic of that, because there is no sharper vested interest than that of Ministers and civil servants to keep what they know to themselves and away from Back Bench Members who are liable to criticise it. The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire said that there was no party line about this. I agree with him. It goes for both sorts of Government—those made up of my right hon. and hon. Friends and those of the Opposition—and their supporting civil servants.
A few years ago an experiment was started with departmentally related Select Committees. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dartford suggested that there should be experiments in three or four Departments only. We held such experiments. The first one was a depart-mentally related Select Committee on agriculture, fisheries and food. The Committee met to consider its programme of work. It decided that since so much of the work of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as we have had cause to see lately, is tied up with the decisions of the European Commission, the Committee should go to Brussels to talk to the relevant people in the Commission. But the Government said "You cannot do that." When the Committee replied that it would go to Brussels, the Government proceeded forthwith to abolish that Select Committee.
I say to the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire that unless 112 there has been a blinding light on the road to Damascus since then, and unless some of my right hon. Friends have suffered a miraculous conversion, we shall not find it easy to get the Government to accept the propositions in the report.
I am a great supporter of the concept of the departmentally related Committee. I hope that no one will think me immodest if I make the point that I first defended those Committees more than 20 years ago when the concept was not as popular as it is now. I believe that they are the only way in which we can narrow the gap between, on the one hand, what Ministers and their civil servants know and, on the other hand, what hon. Members know. I should be happy to think that there were 10 hon. Members who knew a great deal more about for example, education than almost any of us in this House apart from Ministers. I would be happy to know that they had an adequate back-up staff.
I do not agree that the proposals in the report for back-up staff are inadequate. I am not thinking in terms of the American system, which is hideously and ridiculously inflated. I would want to be made available to each of the Committees an expert in industrial relations, an expert in cost accounting, and specialists in various other subjects, just as they are available to the Government.
Even allowing for deaths, loss of interest by hon. Members and general elections, a certain amount of continuity could be secured. This would provide 10 chaps who knew a great deal about a subject and were thus able to ask the right questions. That is the important factor. I discovered that when I was Chairman of a Select Committee. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) nodding in agreement. He was a most valuable member of the Committee. The greatest problem was figuring out the best questions to ask of which witnesses. A group of hon. Members with that degree of expertise and continuity would exercise Parliament's right to know—that is the key, because we have a right to know—much more, for example, about Supply and how it is spent. With such backing we might even have known about the gynaecological tests that were being conducted, unknown to most people. Goodness knows what 113 other matters would be exposed by that sort of inquiry.
We would have a group of knowledgeable hon. Members in each subject, who would put their knowledge at the disposal of the House when such matters were debated. Earlier, one hon. Member referred to low attendances in the House. Why should fewer hon. Members be willing to attend a well-informed debate on the basis of a good Select Committee report when contributions were made by hon. Members who could meet Ministers on equal terms? Surely more hon. Members would attend a well-informed debate, especially if it was a debate which would reach some conclusion. Nobody gets excited these days about debates on the reports of Select Committees, because they are only "take note" debates. No man of spirit ever gets worked up about words that never issue in action or decision. That would do us a lot of good.
I refer now to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. Although I am dearly devoted to my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), I fear that he was arguing absolutely the wrong case. He came to the right conclusion for completely the wrong reasons. He was saying that a depart-mentally related Committee—for example, on energy or transport—would not be able to investigate the nationalised industries sponsored by the Departments of Energy and Transport in the way that his Committee does. My worry is that it would but that it would do nothing else.
I am worried that, instead of investigating with the Secretary of State for Energy the broad strategic problems of energy policy, the Committee would be digging down into the report and accounts of the National Coal Board. Instead of investigating with the Minister of Transport the broad strategic problems of co-ordinated transport, it would be digging into the reports of British Railways. Let me quote a passage from the report in order to make my point. It covers paragraphs 5.37 and 5.38. In the first, the Select Committee was good enough to quote from a memorandum that I had submitted. It referred to my suggestionthat the involvement of departmental select committees in the investigation of the operations and management of the industries would contribute further to the ' blurring of the boundary between the policy-making duty of 114 the Minister and the commercial responsibilities of the Corporations' and could thereby ' have disadvantageous effects on relations between the Corporations, their sponsoring Ministers and Parliament '.The Select Committee was kind enough to say:These arguments cannot be dismissed lightlyand then it went on to make its big error. It saidbut the alternatives need to be considered equally seriously. If the Nationalised Industries Committee continued to be charged with responsibility for the examination of the work of so many major industries, the work of some of the departmentally-related committees would be severely limited in consequence. This would be particularly true of the Transport and Energy Committee ".In other words, it said that if one took away from the Committees related to Departments that sponsored nationalised industries investigation of the nationalised industries, there would be nothing left for them to examine.
That is where the Committee went wrong. It went wrong in the way that so many people, all the way back to Herbert Morrison, have gone wrong. The whole concept of the autonomous public corporation was that it was a device to secure that whereas Ministers made global sectoral policy—for example, the Secretary of State for Energy would make global policy for energy and the Minister for Transport would do the same in his sphere, and they would co-ordinate all the different elements of their respective policies—they would not interfere in the day-to-day workings of the relevant corporations.
In practice, precisely the reverse has happened. Ever since nationalisation, Ministers have not made global policy. They have interfered deep down into the minutiae of the day-to-day workings of the corporations. If any hon. Member wants evidence of that, it is developed in great detail in the first report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries for the Session 1967–68.
That is the great trouble. It is easy for a Minister to say to the chairman of a corporation "Why did you appoint that chap?" It is easy for him to say "Why are you proposing this price increase?" It is easy for him to say "Why are you proposing to expand that factory?" It is far more difficult, and requires much more 115 thought, to make sectoral policy and to act as a co-ordinator. That is why Ministers have never done it. That is why today gas and electricity behave as though they were in separate ownerships as well as under separate managements, spending millions of pounds, pinching customers from one another, and having two blokes to go and read two meters in the same cupboard. They will not even talk to each other. This is what the Secretary of State for Energy should be thinking about, not going into the details of the accounts of the Gas Corporation.
I remember the time—I was the Member for Reading—when British Rail, with fiendish ingenuity, arranged for the trains from London to arrive at Reading station two minutes after all the connecting buses to the villages round about had left. There was absolutely no co-ordination, but, of course, the Minister did not think about that; he was too busy fiddling with the details of the industry's operations.
Here is another example. British European Airways, as it then was, learnt, by reading about it in the newspaper, of British Rail's decision to electrify the line to Manchester and Liverpool, which had an enormous effect on the economy of the air corporation's London-Ringway service. The Minister concerned did not even think it necessary to tell British European Airways. There was not even that much co-ordination or cross-fertilisation.
We shall not be able to get that even through the Select Committees because, I remind the House, one Ministry deals with road transport and rail transport, a different Ministry deals with shipping and air transport, and yet another deals with inland water transport. So this apparatus of departmentally related Committees will not be able to take a co-ordinated view—an across-the-board view, in the jargon of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.
§ Mr. Russell Kerr
Would my hon. Friend care to go on to remind the House that all the industries that he has just mentioned are in fact covered by our Sub-Committee A, which handles transport industries?
§ Mr. Mikardo
Exactly—that is the point I am making. It is possible, as 116 someone said earlier, to have Sub-Committees, Joint Sub-Committees and so on, but, in the first place, I do not think that that will happen, and, in the second place, I come back to my main worry that these departmentally related Committees will not be investigating the departmental and sectoral broad strategic policy-making, because they will be too tempted to go into the minutiae of the working of the sponsored public corporations. That, I believe, is the justification for the retention, really as a special case, of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.
That apart, I repeat my tribute to the Select Committee and my thanks for a magnificent report.
§ 7.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)
I find myself in complete agreement with virtually everything said by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo). He is one of my constituents, and but rarely is it given to us, and on very few days of the year, to find ourselves in such complete and ideal agreement with our constituents.
The time of special pleading is virtually over. We have had a lot of special pleading. Some hon. Members have suggested that if we were to have a regime of Select Committees the potential would be diverted from the Chamber and the place would empty. Those who have made that comment have apparently tried to make the prophecy come true with withdrawing their own presence from this debate at an early stage.
I wish to take up the central point dwelt on by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. It goes back to the early meetings of our Select Committee when it was set up nearly three years ago. We started by asking ourselves what was wrong and why we had been set up. What was wrong with Parliament? There was a series of interesting and fascinating meetings, covering the better part of nine months, when we discussed among ourselves what we thought was wrong.
The conclusion to which we all came has already been quoted by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow—that as each Parliament goes by there is a growing imbalance between the executive arm of our constitution and the legislature, that the power of the executive 117 branch of the Government grows steadily greater, and the power of the legislature to act as some check upon that power, either by examining or by actually checking it, grows less and less.
It is as though the House of Commons and the Government were playing a game of chess on a tilted chess board and every time the Commons made a move the pieces gently slid off into the Government's lap. Our recommendations go some way to redeem that imbalance and to set the chess board on an even table. That is why we have recommended the setting up of the 12 departmentally related Select Committees and the other changes as well, including the changes in Standing Committee procedure.
Above all, we believe that there must be a change in our procedures, and, in order that we may obtain that change, the position of the Lord President and Leader of the House is vital, since we cannot make any of these changes until he and the Government of the day, the opponents in the game of tilted chess as it were, decide what we are allowed to decide upon. That seems to me to be fundamentally unsound in relation to our own procedures.
I have no quarrel with the customs or, indeed, the essential practice of the House that it is the Executive of the day which controls the Order Paper, since it is in the control of the Order Paper that much of the power of the Government lies, but within our own procedures something else is needed, and that is why I have tried to promote the idea that the findings of all Procedure Committees, together with the Sessional Procedure Committees, should be tabled by the Government of the day so that the House of Commons could itself decide which changes it wanted to make. Otherwise, the Government of the day will pick them over like a little child picking over a currant bun, taking out the bits that they want, and that, in my view, is not an appropriate relationship between the House of Commons and the Government of the day.
The attitude of the Lord President himself is vital here. Remembering when he came to give evidence to us, I recall a few words of the Duke of Wellington, when Prime Minister and resisting reform. I think that they sum up the attitude of 118 the Leader of the House. The Duke of Wellington said:Not only do I think parliamentary reform is unnecessary, but it would be so injurious that society could not exist under the system which must be its consequence.In essence, that is the view of the Leader of the House. So what is the right hon. Gentleman's case? The first point is that the Select Committees will subvert the Chamber and drain attention away from the House. Several hon. Members have made that point. I do not agree. I believe that they will complement our work, not replace it. The House of Commons has long ceased to examine expenditure in detail. We have the power to deny Supply, but it has been done—certainly in the 10 years that I have been a Member—on very rare occasions, and it is very much a blunderbuss type of control.
The only bodies in the House which can exercise proper detailed control over expenditure are Select Committees. They can call before them permanent secretaries, senior civil servants, chairmen of nationalised industries and other members of that great coterie of unanswer-ables. They can pin them down. We cannot do that at the Bar of the House. No one is pretending that we can possibly do that.
The second part of the argument is that the proposed Select Committee system would draw attention away from the Chamber. The Procedure Committee recognised that argument. We recommended that there should be eight Select Committee Mondays so that reports of the Select Committees would return to the Chamber to be debated on the Floor of the House on positive motions in the names of the Chairmen.
The second argument of the Leader of the House and of those who support him is that if we set up 12 Select Committees there will be created two classes of Member, the expert and the generalise It is an important argument. Many of our colleagues have a vision that if there is a Select Committee on housing, for example, those who are members of it will become so expert on housing that other hon. Members will be reluctant ever to intervene on housing matters.
I ask the House to consider whether the Chamber has not always been so 119 constituted. There have always been specialists in the House, as there have always been those who have been interested in more general matters. There have always been those who have preferred the foothills and those who have preferred the alps. The absence of detailed scrutiny has never prevented generalists from making a considerable impact. If I may say so, the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who ranges over the major issues in British politics, will come into the Chamber to speak on relatively trivial matters that require specific and detailed knowledge. That has always been a characteristic of certain Members of this place.
If we go back to the 1930s, we find that another great generalist, Winston Churchill, busied himself with considerable diligence with the details of the administrative reform of Indian government. He did so for the better part of the 1930s.
By setting up the Select Committees, I do not believe that we shall divide the House into specialists and generalists. There is in each hon. Member an element that is generalist on some issues and specialist on others. It is a false distinction. It is a false premise that experts are some inferior breed beyond the law.
It is said, of course, that government has become so complex that there are some areas of it—for example social security—where, without detailed knowledge, the expert is the only person who can thread his way through.
The third argument of the Lord President is that if we set up the Select Committees we shall destroy the essential adversary nature of British politics and in so doing we shall introduce a shade of grey into matters that should be seen in the blackest of black or the whitest of white.
Surely that is a mistaken "view of how politics work in Britain and how we should conduct ourselves in the House. Let us remember that two-thirds of our work in the House is not concerned with the fundamental differences between capitalism and Socialism or between Tory doctrine and Labour doctrine. The evidence that I adduce to support that proposition is based on what happened 120 last week. Over half the time of the House was taken up with the Banking Bill, the Credit Unions Bill and the Vaccine Damage Payments Bill. Those measures do not provide the raw red meat of party controversy. However, they took up the time of the House for nearly two-thirds of last week.
The really important event that happened last week passed in an hour. I refer to the concordat with the trade unions. That was the politically important event of last week, and it was allowed only one hour.
The House is not being bypassed by Select Committees. It is much more being bypassed by deals with various power groups. The deals are perfunctorily reported and not actually approved by the House.
These are the three arguments that have been adduced by the Lord President to support his opposition to the proposals of the Procedure Committee. I hope that he will change his view. He is a great parliamentarian and very much a House of Commons man. His attendance in the House is one of the most remarkable features of the Treasury Front Bench.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would find some difficulty in answering my proposition that the House of Commons should make its own decisions on procedural matters. His answer now is to let the next Parliament decide upon these important matters. He is suggesting, as it were, that decisions should be put off until tomorrow. His approach is that we should let the country decide other important matters and therefore provide for a fresh, new Parliament to consider these procedural matters.
The country is able to decide upon the broad issues of party politics. It can decide upon taxation policies, housing policies and all the matters that divide us, but none of us pretends that the Procedure Committee's recommendations will feature strongly in the next general election. They will not. These are hardly matters to be decided by a general election.
These matters can be decided uniquely by the House, and especially by the present Parliament. There are many hon. Members with great experience who will be leaving the House at the end of this 121 Parliament. They have experienced how Select Committees and Standing Committees work. They have breathed the atmosphere of this place and have the feel of it in their bones. Surely it is much better for them to decide upon these important matters than for a new Parliament, with many young hon. Members who may be experienced politicians but who may know only vaguely the difference between a Select Committee and a Standing Committee, to make the decision. If the present Parliament lasts, I hope that we shall have an opportunity to make our own decision.
Earlier I quoted from the Duke of Wellington. I quote him again, and from the peroration of his last speech as Prime Minister, made in another place. Once again, he was resisting reform. His words may be used precisely by the present Leader of the House. The Duke of Wellington said:I am not only prepared not to bring forward any measure of this nature but I will at once declare that I shall always feel it my duty to resist such measures when proposed by others.To complete the analogy, the speech was made on the eve of a thundering election defeat. However, I emphasise that we are not discussing a party matter. We are discussing a topic on which we can find agreement across the Floor of the House. I hope that later in the Session, if the Parliament lasts, we shall be able to make up our minds not only upon the major recommendations of the Procedure Committee but upon the minor ones as well.
§ 7.58 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)
In common with the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker), I recognise the problem. We all recognise it. The problem is the imbalance between the executive branch and the legislative assembly. The question what to do about that imbalance has been exercising the minds of hon. Members ever since I came to this place. I doubt very much whether the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, as now before us, will carry us very much further forward.
When I first came to the House of Commons we had the Public Accounts Committee in more or less the form in which it now operates. We also had the Estimates Committee. That was defined 122 in Sub-Committees by letters of the alphabet. In addition, we had another Sub-Committee dealing exclusively with Supplementary Estimates. It issued reports within a fortnight.
We moved from there to defining the Sub-Committees of the Estimates Committee by reference to managerial functions—for example, education and social services. It seemed that that was progress, but there was little change in the procedure. It continued pretty much as before.
After an interval of a few years we had the Dick Crossman proposals. The Estimates Committee was disbanded and the Expenditure Committee took its place. That Committtee had much wider terms of reference. It could sit in public. That was progress. It could cross-examine Ministers. That was a considerable step forward. However, in general it behaved very much as if it had been the Estimates Committee of the early 1950s.
I hope that I am not mistaken, but I suspect that we shall see the mixture as before. We put it in different pots and define the mixture in different ways, but the practice of Members in Committee will go on pretty much as before.
The structure of this debate emphasises the danger that we face. We are debating a large number of reports which are far too wide-ranging, too diverse, too ambitious to achieve anything real. We have all received our bundle of reports from the Vote Office. The fifth report deals with questions to the Prime Minister. I do not think that reference was made to that matter.
I was a firm supporter of broadcasting Prime Minister's Question Time. Now I have serious doubts. Questions to the Prime Minister have been made an absolute farce. That is related to some extent—if not exclusively—to the fact that Members of Parliament know that they will be heard live on radio. Questions are now put to the Prime Minister by hon. Members who would never have thought of trying to table such questions in years gone by.
It has been made easy. There are now two or three recognised, silly forms of questions to the Prime Minister. I refer to questions dealing with the Prime Minister's engagements, or his visit to Tolpuddle, or whatever. It does not 123 require thought, initiative or imagination to table such a question. It would be far better to complete the farce by giving each hon. Member a number, carry out a bingo call each day, and as the number comes up allow the Member to ask his question. That would be no more of a farce than it is now.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
I have sympathy with the hon. Member's analysis, but is he not being a little unfair to the BBC and to broadcasting in blaming this process upon them? The process had begun—it is deplorable, I agree—long before the commencement of broadcasting of proceedings of the House.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I agree to some extent with that, but not entirely. The farce has been expedited and intensified by the knowledge "We are live on radio". The Leader of the Opposition is constantly aware that her comments are being broadcast and she behaves rather like an actress. Perhaps "actor" and "politician" are interchangeable terms. However, Members are behaving differently now from the way in which they behaved when our proceedings were not broadcast. I regret that.
I return to the reports. I mentioned questions to the Prime Minister. The sixth report deals with the operation of Standing Order No. 9. That is important, but not excessively so in the context of the big challenges that we face—the legislature versus the executive.
The seventh report deals with the eligibility of Members successful in ballots for notices of motions and Bills to take part in subsequent ballots. I am sure that the electorate in West Fife are on tenterhooks to know exactly how we shall sort out that problem. Members of Parliament must remember this: to the people outside the House our procedures are gobbledegook. A great many of them are completely irrelevant to the problems that we face.
I could go through the reports to illustrate my point. There is much trivia that concerns only Members of this monastic establishment.
I return to the theme of the main report being debated—whether we should alter 124 the way in which we structure the Select Committee procedures. The Departmental Committees proposition goes back to the Haldane report of more than 60 years ago. It was rejected at that time for reasons that seem to me as sound today as they were then. However much we try to compartmentalise these Committees, there is bound to be a considerable degree of overlap. The Select Committees will take virtually no notice of the fact that they are supposed to be restricted to the Foreign Office, defence matters, or whatever. Moreover, even assuming that, there are problems which have not been dealt with adequately in the report. Let me cite one or two examples.
The staffing problem is one in respect of which the gulf between the Executive and the legislature can never conceivably be bridged. We may lessen it minutely, but in view of the amount of expertise available to even the most minor Minister compared with the expert advice and staff available to any Select Committee of the House, the gulf is so great as to be completely unbridgeable.
Some years ago, when the Ministry of Aviation was in existence, one of our Sub-Committees was investigating a problem associated with that Department. I ascertained how many civil servants of scientific officer status were available in that Department compared with those available to the Committee, which was putting them under cross-examination. The figure was several hundreds in the Department. The Select Committee, which was presumed to be challenging that Department on an equal footing, had one part-time secretary and one part-time Clerk, who was almost straight out of university. He was an able young man. However, to try to pit such a Select Committee against a huge Government Department made nonsense.
There is nothing in this report that will reduce that gap, except marginally. I do not know what is the answer. When we raised these problems many years ago there was the eternal question, which has never yet been answered, that if we produced even 100 Clerks to service these Committees, we immediately created a problem of career structure and promotional prospects. What on earth will those people do in 20 or 30 years' time without a career structure? The only career that they have is to graduate to the 125 Table. The number who can do so is very limited.
§ Mr. John Garrett
Surely it is clear that a period of service as a specialist adviser to an investigatory Committee of Parliament would be a valuable time in the careeer development of a consultant, an academic, or someone who worked in industry. I should have thought that there would be a plentiful supply of people willing to come in as specialists or experts for a short period.
§ Mr. Hamilton
This matter was gone into in great detail many years ago. This was regarded then as an insuperable obstacle. When young men or women come to this place they want a career structure.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I understand the problem probably as well as my hon. Friend. I have had a good deal more experience of it in the House. It is not easy to solve this problem. Moreover, we must take account of unforeseen circumstances. For instance, Governments of all political persuasions often use the escape hatch of establishing ad hoc Select Committees. When the Government were in difficulties over the abortion question, they said, "We shall establish a Seclect Committee on abortion, to consider the reports on the problem that have been produced." That shelved the problem. It got the then Government out of a difficulty. When they were under pressure, they said "We shall have to wait for the report."
It was the same when we had pressure put on us from outside to discuss the problem of battered wives and battered children. The Government did not have a clue. They had no statistics relating to the size or nature of the problem. The then Leader of the House said "We shall set up a Select Committee on the question of battered wives." I, mug that I was, was designated Chairman of that Committee. The Clerk who was dealing with my Committee on battered wives was also dealing with abortion. He was deluged with memoranda from all over the country and all over the world concerning battered wives and abortion. It was coming in from the Roman Catholic Church and from all sorts of people. He was flooded with memoranda, and one could hardly see him for paper. He had a good degree in Greek, or something like that. 126 That was the kind of silly position into which the House got itself.
Another question is the membership of Committees. In an earlier intervention a Conservative Member said that there was a waiting list for the membership. That was news to me. A certain distinguished Member of this House, who has now left, once came to me, when the Estimates Committee—subsequently the Expenditure Committee—was in being, and sought to pressurise me and other people about getting him appointed to the Committee. We all know about Buggins's turn and the patronage with which this place is riddled. He desperately wanted to be on that Committee. He managed to get on to it, but when he saw what was involved he did not attend, and after one Session we had to get him off it. He would not attend when he saw the gruelling work that had to be done.
Let no one pretend that there is great, devoted service given to these Committees once a Member gets on them. It is not true. Very often it is necessary for the Clerk to be sent downstairs to chase up Members, so that the Committee can have a quorum of two, or three, or whatever number is required. Indeed, earlier in the debate, one of my hon. Friends leaned over to me told me that in the last Session the Public Accounts Committee, of which he was a member, was usually attended by only about a quarter of the Members.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
I have been a member of the Public Accounts Committee, on and off, for 20 years. I have missed two meetings. On only two occasions can I remember it being necessary to send the Clerk down to the Chamber to find enough Members to make up a quorum, and on those occasions there were very important debates in the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman must not mislead the House.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am not misleading the House. The hon. Gentleman is exceptional. I remember, however, that when he and I were on the Estimates Committee, or the Expenditure Committee, he told me that he employed a professional reader of the bumf that he received from Departments, because he could not find the time to do his own reading.
That brings me to the question of the remuneration of Members and related 127 matters. It requires considerable expertise to get through the amount of paper work that Members have to get through, and it also takes a considerable time. The number of Members prepared to do this is extremely limited. As I well know, and as hon. Members in all parts of the House know, a tremendous onus rests on the Chairmen of Committees. I do not ask hon. Members this question in any rhetorical sense, but how often do they have to rely on the fact that the Chairman has read his papers, because they have not read the papers themselves? Hon. Members sit back in Committee and wait for the lead to be given by the Chairman. Then they are able to chip in with their questions. That is largely true of most Members who sit on these Committees.
§ Mr. Hamilton
Yes, most Members.
I turn now to the related concept that if Members of Select Committees can be confined to a particular Department of State we shall have the development of expertise. This was the objective of Mr. Dick Crossman when the Expenditure Committee was set up, with the subdivision into subject matters. Even assuming that that were possible, I think that it is a development of doubtful value deliberately to encourage some kind of departmental expertise.
One thing that I have learnt from this place, whether in observing or listening to or debating with the so-called experts in the Treasury, the Foreign Office or anywhere else, is to beware of the experts. I have never known them to be right in almost anything. Some years ago the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and I gave evidence in successive weeks to one of the Select Committees. He said then—and I am almost inclined now to agree with him—that the most effective Back Bench Member who ever comes here comes with no great expertise but with good, sound common sense. He can very often throw light on a subject that has been completely obscured by the so-called knowledge of the expert.
Let us consider some examples of how this expertise is to develop. One of the Committees to be established is in foreign affairs. Does anyone pretend that even if a Member serves on that Committee 128 for 10 or 20 years he will be an expert on the Middle East, on the Far East, on Europe, on America, on Latin America, on the USSR and on the Communist bloc? It is absolute nonsense. Indeed, we know that there is a regular turnover of the membership of the Committees of this House. Very few Members sit on them consistently over 10, 15 or 20 years.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)
I have been listening very closely to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I may interject a word as a former member of the Foreign Service. It is largely based on the amateur. Of course, in certain posts there are specialists who can contribute expert advice. But the staff of our embassies abroad are, rightly, comprised of people who serve only two or three years in any post, and who bring to that post the judgment that they have formed by serving in other posts and by experience in Departments in London. It does not seem necessarily to follow that one has to be an expert in order to shed the light of common sense on decisions on foreign policy.
§ Mr. Hamilton
That is probably why our foreign policy is in such a mess. We have people who are neither expert nor amateur but something in between. The hon. Gentleman's point seems to underline my argument. If it is regarded as desirable that a man should go to an embassy abroad and serve only three years, in the knowledge that he has a first-class mind and is therefore able to master the problem at the time, surely the same argument applies to Select Committees. If that is so, there is no need to have these Departmental Committees for all time, or to presume that by setting them up we shall somehow get the development of an expertise. I do not believe that it is either possible or desirable to do that.
I was about to give another example. A social services Select Committee is proposed, presumably to deal with education, the whole range of national insurance, health, housing and the rest. Does anyone seriously believe that by virtue of serving on a Committee of that nature a Member will develop any kind of expertise other than or better than—
§ Mr. English rose—
§ Mr. Hamilton
I shall not give way, because I do not want to take too long.
129 I want to emphasise that this kind of development of so-called expertise is neither possible nor desirable under the proposals. The theory is fine, but in practice it will not work. We should have nothing to do with encouraging the myth that we can produce experts, even if we wanted to, by this kind of proposition.
I have already touched on the vital question of the chairmanship of Committees. I have seen good Chairmen and bad Chairmen. More than anything, the effectiveness of Select Committees depends on the quality, devotion and conscientiousness of the Chairmen. I have long felt that the Chairmen work harder than most junior Ministers, and without anything like comparable staff assistance. That will not do.
Let me quote my experience in the European Parliament. I was appointed chairman of a committee that was relatively unimportant—for that Parliament—the Committee on Rules of Procedure and Petitions. Within 24 hours of that appointment I was surrounded by about a dozen members of the secretariat, speaking all kinds of languages—German, Italian, Dutch, the whole ruddy lot. That contrasted very sharply with the experience here, where they speak one language but there is only one of them. There is only one Clerk, and very often he is only part-time. Recently we have been able to hire ad hoc from outside, but we have nothing much more than that.
I would not go as far along the road as the Americans have gone in having their relations—brothers, uncles and everybody else—on the payroll, but there should be a happy medium, and we must strike it somewhere.
Criticism has been levelled at my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and others for not making concrete proposals. The reason why he does not do so is that there is great difficulty in finding the middle ground. There is no consensus in the House on the reports. If all the propositions were put to a free vote, the large majority of hon. Members would not bother to attend, as we find today. With no vote at the end of this great revolutionary debate, the attendance over the hours has averaged about 20 hon. Members. This shows a kind of defeatism.
§ Mr. English rose—
§ Mr. Hamilton
My hon. Friend has talked a great deal about these matters, and he must give me the chance to say my little bit.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House must not—I am sure that he does not—take too seriously the criticisms that have been levelled at him, because he is a representative of a Government who are extremely conservative in these matters, as are all Governments. If the Conservatives ever man the Government Benches, they will take exactly the same conservative views on these matters as have every Government that I have seen in the House over the past quarter of a century.
There is a vested interest in maintaining the enormous gulf between the Executive and the legislature. It exists in Executives of all political persuasions.
I have said that I should be very sceptical about the effectiveness of the proposals, even if they were all accepted. Now I want to put forward a proposition. I must confess that I was remiss in not putting it to the Procedure Committee when it was sitting. I put it forward now knowing full well that it has no hope of being accepted and that it will receive no support anywhere.
My proposals are linked with a desire to reduce patronage and at the same time increase the effectiveness of the legislature as an investigatory body. I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that those are two worthy objectives.
I want to abolish the House of Lords in its present form. I see that my right hon. Friend is nodding assent. He wholeheartedly agrees, so I have at least one supporter. In fact, I think that on the Labour Benches there is general acceptance of that desire. After a general election I should like to see the elected House of Commons divided into two Chambers, with a degree of specialisation in each and a preference for one of them devoting its activities wholly to the investigatory process.
If one had 635 elected Members of the House of Commons, they would be divided into two Chambers, each consisting of roughly 300 Members, who would have the choice of serving in the investigatory Chamber or one such as this, which would proceed in the normal way. In 131 one fell swoop we would have got rid of a considerable element of patronage from the House of Lords, and the hereditary element. I think that would be a step in the right direction.
The investigatory Chamber could be divided into 15 or 20 Select Committees, each consisting of 20 or 15 members. Those Committees could be adequately staffed and would do nothing but examine the policies and costings of Departments of State.
That proposition has great attractions, because we would get rid of the charge, which we on the Government side like to make, that the other Chamber is not elected and is predominantly Conservative. Both Chambers would be democratically elected. Moreover, the problem of accommodation would be solved, or would be a long way towards solution.
The arguments put forward in successive Procedure Committees raise considerable problems about accommodation if these Committees are to do their jobs properly. Physically, this building is inadequate to meet modern-day needs. By getting rid of the House of Lords and turning this whole building over to 635 democratically elected Members of Parliament—there would be no Lord Chancellor's Department here; shove him out into Whitehall or Westminster, or wherever—an enormous amount of accommodation would become immediately available to us.
As I said, there is no hope of that kind of proposition being accepted by my own Government, still less by a Government of any other political persuasion. However, I put that suggestion forward to go into the melting pot because it is worthy of some examination.
I want to refer briefly to the question of EEC legislation, to which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House attached a great deal of importance. This matter was alluded to only briefly by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) when he made his worthy speech at the beginning of the debate. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman missed the main point—which, incidentally, I support—namely, the recommendation of the Committee in paragraphs 4.14 and 4.15 on page 42 of the report, which states 132that the Government should undertake to provide time for debate on consultative documents issued by the Commission on major policy proposals, thereby allowing the House to express an opinion on the overall policy intentions of the Commission, prior to their preparation of detailed legislative proposals.In paragraph 4.15 the report goes on to say:For the most part a clear decision by the House would strengthen, rather than weaken, the Government's bargaining position.In his reply I hope that my right hon. Friend will make a favourable response to that proposition.
The overall impression that I have gained from reading these reports is that we have been over far too much of this ground before. There are very few new ideas within the reports, because all Governments are conservative. Only Oppositions tends to be radical in this place. Be it on a question of procedure, conditions of work for Members of Parliament, questions of open government or patronage, most Governments resist any attempt at change.
I recently read the book by James Margach on the abuse of power. James Margach was well loved and respected as a Lobby correspondent. In a fair amount of detail, he spelt out how, within his knowledge, virtually all Prime Ministers and Ministers of whatever party would bend over backwards and use this House to preserve their own power and privileges. The right hon. Member for Taun-ton (Mr. du Cann) talked about this House being master of its own affairs. It should be, but Parliament does not exert its sovereignty in the way that it should. The will is simply not there to exert it. Too many hon. Members are content to accept the role of subservient, placid, wet Lobby fodder for party Whips. There are too many budding or past Ministers around, who for one reason or another are content to sit tight and let the world go by.
The malevolence of patronage in this place is far more widespread than many people believe. Some years ago the chairmanships of the Sub-Committees of the Estimates Committee worked on the principle of "Buggins's turn". When Buggins's turn happened to be the turn of Mr. Sidney Silverman, the then Government of the day—which happened to be a Labour Government—exercised all their ingenuity with great success and prevented Mr. Sidney 133 Silverman from becoming the Chairman of a Sub-Committee. That kind of skulduggery is not yet dead—not by a long way. The sooner we get rid of it, the better.
We now have a unique opportunity. Over the next several years, I believe that we shall have minority government. If we cannot exercise the sovereignty of Back Benchers in that situation, we shall never be able to do so. There have been recent examples of industrial action by certain unions—NUPE and others. Why do not Back Benchers on both sides of this House get together and take some industrial action against the Executive? For instance, if Back Benchers think that business should finish at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m., why do not they get together and say "To hell with the Executive, we are going home"? That would bring the Government so much into disrepute that they would have to take notice of the consensus across the Floor of the House.
The point that I emphasise is that we have the sovereignty if we have the will to exercise it. Over the years, we have debated reports on procedure and have made very little advance, because we do not have the will to advance. That is all that is required—the will of Back Benchers to impose their will on the Government Front Bench. Until we get that, the Government of the day will continue to get their own way.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)
The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) has given us an illumination of his views on how to reform this place. Among his more novel suggestions was that we should enter into a major constitutional reform of the other place in order to secure more accommodation for ourselves. Other people might perhaps put a little more weight on that matter than did the hon. Gentleman.
However, a point with which I agreed was that we depend much more upon the will to make reform than on the actual content of reform. I make that point because, having listened throughout the debate, and having had a number of discussions before and since the Committee's report was published, it is clear that there is no way in which the House will 134 get universal agreement on the details of any particular procedural reform.
I had the pleasure of chairing a group of 40 Back-Bench Conservative Members who are interested in this matter. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), we also put forward our suggestions, which contained many recommendations which were common to this report. We were not unanimous on everything, and if we were to meet again we would probably find some things in the report with which we would disagree.
Nevertheless, the one thing that bound us together was that we had agreed at the beginning that, although we would have to agree to differ on some matters of procedure, the main thrust of our argument was that we would support whatever reform was most likely to get adopted to achieve certain specific ends. In this respect, this debate is different from those which have preceded it. It is no good going back to the days of Lord Haldane. The people who are here and the circumstances with which we are dealing are quite different. The will is different. It will be completely misjudged by the Leader of the House if he does not understand that.
I have no more trust in my side of the House than in the Government side. It is true always that when they are in power, people have a completely different view of this matter from when they are in Opposition. It is true also that some of my hon. Friends, tempted as they will be not only by the pleasures of office but by the legitimate desire to get through something in which they passionately believe, will be less than keen to be subject to greater scrutiny and delay.
That is all true. Nevertheless, it is also true that, over and above that, there lies a much greater determination among those who will not be Ministers in the future Conservative Government, or are not Ministers in the present Labour Government, and even among some of those who will be Ministers in the future Conservative Government, to do something about this.
There is one aspect which has most depressed me about today's debate. It seems to me that people have forgotten, in some cases, what it is about. There are notable exceptions, and I do not apply 135 this comment to everyone. But those who have been ladling criticisms of detail upon this report have forgotten what we have set out to do. Much of it has been concerned with the inconvenience of Members, with the fact that the House will no longer function in the comfortable manner to which Members have become accustomed, or that it no longer suits the manner of the Lord President and the way in which he viewed the House in former days.
We are not concerned about the convenience of the House. We are concerned about the ability of the House to do its duty properly and the manner in which it ought to do it for the public. It has the duty to control the grant of taxation and the spending of money. It has a duty to investigate the use of Executive power. It has the duty to grant legislative authority. Those three functions this House must perform.
Those who do not like the document before us also have a duty. That duty is to say today what alternative they would put in its place. No hon. Member who has addressed the House today, and no commentator who has commented on the Procedure Committee's report, has yet disputed the opening conclusion of the report, which was put forward strongly by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo), that this House is failing in those three duties and is not conducting itself in a manner to exercise proper control of the Executive. There are those who say "Now is not the time. This is not the way. This will not work. We shall not find enough people. There is too much hard work. There is too much paper. There is not enough staff." All those criticisms may or may not be genuine, but those who put them forward must answer the one central point: if not this way, then how? And not only how, but when?
I do not wish to put words into the mouth of the Lord President, but it is rumoured that he does not greet this report with joy and that he will not say to us tonight that he will be following up the debate by laying further resolutions. It is rumoured that that is his position.
In view of the work that has gone into the report throughout the Session, the Leader of the House has a duty to 136 allow the House to make a decision. If the House should decide not to make a decision in favour of the report, so be it. We shall all abide by that decision. Those of us who have our own pet schemes will submerge our own thoughts into the general vote on the report. But there should be a vote on the main contents of the report.
We can no longer rely upon generalised undertakings. I do not blame Ministers, but they are fond of giving undertakings. The hon. Member for Fife, Central was at pains to explain how often we had gone round this course before. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) and others have talked about the lack of staff. How many times have we been round that course before?
The reason for this situation is that the House does not control its own affairs. The recent Act which sets up a Commission will make the situation better, but the House will still not control its own finances. It will not have the power to set up a new section of research assistants, for example.
It is time that the House had control over its own expenditure and finances. The House must also ensure that the proposals in this report are enshrined properly in Standing Orders and in the activities of the Liaison Committee for Chairmen, for example, and that they are taken away from the Government, whichever Government that it. It is important that these matters are firmly and completely laid down and are not simply left to the whim of the Government—whatever that Government.
It will take a long time for this matter to gather steam again. The report has taken two years to produce. It has collected evidence at home and abroad. We are confronted with a change not only of Government but of Members of Parliament. New hon. Members will say, as I once said, that it is easy to make a change. We all say at some time that we can do here as we do in business. We have to go through the grinding mass of discussion again. But there are certain points at which one must make a decision. I hope that the Lord President will say what I do not think he will say, namely, that the House can make a decision before the general election. I hope that the Opposition spokesman will make it clear that if the 137 Lord President fails in that regard he will undertake that our party will allow the new House of Commons to make a decision in the first Session of Parliament. That is of fundamental importance.
I turn to the legislative processes mentioned in the proposals. They have been referred to as a compromise. I agree, but it is an unsatisfactory compromise. The compromise arises because the Committee did not have any great enthusiasm for the final decision about the Select Committees and their role in the House. The Committee was too influenced by the past and too worried about how the Select Committees will affect the House. I do not think that the Select Committees will affect the Chamber. The Chamber affects itself. The purposes of the Select Committees are different. They should match the Departments of State, because in that way only will they be able to cover all the activities of a Department. It is odd that they should not also take on board the legislation which comes out of a Department.
One of the reasons advanced is that it is a different process which produces a different balance between the parties, and that there is a much more relaxed inter-party atmosphere in a Select Committee as opposed to a Standing Committee. It is also true that some Bills would be quite unsuitable for prolonged Select Committee procedure. Nevertheless, it would make perfectly good sense for the Select Committees to go into these matters at an earlier stage.
When I discuss legislation with people outside the House, as well as with hon. Members, the one feature which stands out is that legislation comes before the House in too final a form. To affect legislation people have to get in early. By the time Ministers come before the House, they are very much committed. Standing Committees make worthwhile changes only occasionally. In many cases this is because the Minister is committed.
It should be possible for the House to devise for the great generality of legislation—it is not all highly controversial—what is loosely called a pre-legislative sitting. Where necessary, the Select Committee for the relevant Department could call evidence in public and have the draft Bill before it. The proper Bill could go through the normal procedure. 138 I speak for no one but myself when I say that such a move could save time. It would certainly produce better legislation. We would finish up with a better thought-out Bill and one which would have taken into account a number of snags. As a result, the procedures in Committee and on Report would be quicker. Obviously, such a procedure would not apply to the Finance Bill and highly controversial legislation, but it could be useful over a wide range of Bills.
I have many detailed criticisms of these proposals, some of which I would accept with considerable reluctance. Nevertheless, what ought to happen as a result of this debate is that the House collectively should agree on a block of proposals which together will do something to right the imbalance which currently exists between the Executive and the legislature.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
In my view, this report is crucial to strengthening parliamentary democracy. It has been apparent for years that in important respects the powers and procedure of the House of Commons have not developed sufficiently to allow adequate surveillance over the Executive. This century has seen an enormous growth in Government functions. The Government have greatly developed their traditional regulatory activities. They have taken on the task of providing many new services to the community. They have taken control of great industries and have come to formulate policy and objectives for the economy as a whole, for the management of markets, for capital and labour, for the redistribution of wealth and for the promotion of social change.
I welcome these developments. As a Labour Member, I hope and expect that they will continue. I recognise that an essential adjunct to the growth in power and influence of the Government must be an equal and countervailing growth in the power of scrutiny of the legislature. It is clear that this House has not developed powers of scrutiny adequate to match the extending authority and responsibility of Government. In other ways this House has proved itself to be an adaptable instrument of our democracy. It is still, as it ever was, an effective forum for the 139 redress of grievance and the remedy of injustice. It has coped remarkably well with the growing tide of legislation put before it, although reforms are needed in that area.
It has extended the rights of the British people and nurtured and strengthened democracy through years of great social change and stress. We acknowledge this achievement. But, as a Committee set up to examine the relevance of the procedures of the House to a changing environment, we unanimously agreed that substantial reforms were needed in the matter of parliamentary and public accountability.
When I say "unanimously agreed", I am aware that such a phrase causes the opponents of the reforms that we proposed—notably, I understand, the Leader of the House—to reach for their guns. To them the mere mention of agreement on a matter that crosses party lines is evidence of consensus, a word that they always prefix with "cosy" to indicate the genuine fear of weakening party conflict and the loss of ideological commitment, which they see as essential to the parliamentary battle.
I invite the Leader of the House to examine the amendment which I tabled to the Procedure Committee's report and which secured the support of all Labour members of the Committee. It was lost only on the conventionally cast vote of the Chairman. That amendment demonstrates the difference in attitude between the Labour members of the Committee and the other members. That difference is fundamental. Labour Members believe deeply in the strengthening of the powers of the House to be able to call to account Ministers and higher officials of public bodies to examine the making and implementation of policy and the management of today's powerful institutions of State. Conservatives not only support this idea but believe in strengthening the House so as to hinder Government action.
The position was clearly put by the Opposition Chief Whip in his evidence to the Committee. He expressed the view that there should be less legislation. He made proposals to slow down the passage of Bills and to reduce what he called the "fearful flow of legislation". He concluded that Parliament should not exist 140 to translate as speedily as possible into action what a government want but thatParliament was invented for precisely the opposite reasons ".I construe that as being to enact the will of Government as slowly as possible. To be fair to the Opposition Chief Whip, he made his remarks in the context of calling for a better scrutiny of legislation, with which I agree. He was even-handed in saying that even when he was in Government he held those views.
But we hold different views of Parliament. Labour sees our legislature as a means of changing our society through democratic means, and is therefore concerned to legislate as much as possible. The Conservatives see Parliament as a means to protect the people from Government. Both sides change tack according to circumstances, and the principle cannot be pushed too far. But I mention it because of the risk that the Leader of the House—and I address many of my remarks to him—may think that, in going along with greater scrutiny and greater accountability, we in the Labour Party embrace the essentially Conservative idea of hostility to legislation.
But our amendment observed that, in so far as the report proposed a strengthening of opposition—and to some extent it does—the essential counter-balance should be the timetabling of all Bills. We said that timetabling would ensure that the Government could get their legislaion enacted, while having to explain their justification for legislaion more fully than in the past. It would also lead to more even consideration of major Bills.
While we are convinced of the need to strengthen the powers of this House in scrutiny and surveillance, we recognise that a Government, particularly a radical the Government could get their legislation through. One way of dealing with this would be the introduction of timetabling for all major Bills. Another way would be to organise the time available to the House to satisfy both needs.
I wish briefly to discuss two major recommendations by the Committee—the new Public Bill procedure and Select Committees—and to refer to the facilities of a Member of Parliament in present conditions. The proposed Public Bill 141 procedure allows for up to three sittings of a Standing Committee on a Bill to be taken in Select Committee form—that is, in a form that allows the taking of evidence in public. An inordinate amount of time is taken up in Standing Committees by discussion of probing amendments from both sides which aim to establish precisely what the Bill means. These discussions are often attempts to delay legislation and consideration of the Bill, or devices to allow members of the Committee to satisfy their desire to make speeches. But in many cases such amendments have to be discussed because the detailed intentions and consequences of a Bill are remarkably opaque. They are often dialogues between Back Benchers and civil servants, conducted through the medium of the Minister, quite often with some distortion on the way through.
It seems to me that a much more sensible way would be to get Committee members, Ministers and civil servants round a table for an initial sitting or two simply to discuss their definition of obscure passages in the Bill. However, the Procedure Committee decided to go for public sittings of taking evidence. I do not think that these will be the calm, objective and rational sessions of inquiry that the Committee foresees. What will happen is that on any controversial Bill the Opposition will wheel in their experts to rubbish the Bill and say with as much publicity as possible that inevitably it will lead to the end of civilisation as we know it, and the Government will wheel in their civil servants, their tame experts, and Ministers to say that the Bill is a major step on the road to Utopia. Out of all this charge and counter-charge there may come some genuine information, however, and it seems to me to be worth a try.
The proposals for a new structure and strength for Select Committees and for a radical reform of the Exchequer and Audit Department really are important. All of us on the Committee, and very many other Back Benchers besides, support this reform strongly. It is clear that it is impossible to call to account Ministers and officials, to penetrate to the roots of public policy and to examine the management of Departments on the Floor of the House.
142 The concentration of the House on this Chamber is crippling for parliamentary democracy. First, it is superficial. Secondly, too often it trivialises issues. Thirdly, it rarely gets to the facts. It also distorts our national political style. We have created arrangements which mean that our political style is long on rhetoric and short on analysis. They breed too many politicians who endeavour to behave like Pericles the orator and end up sounding like Hyberbolos the demagogue. This is not to deny the value of debate, especially on great issues of the day. It is just to say that debate is no longer enough and that it must be supplemented by rigorous and expert investigation.
We have investigatory Committees, and they have done excellent work. The Expenditure Committee has brought a lot of policy and bureaucracy out into the light. But these Committees suffer from some serious weaknesses. The first is the inadequacy of the information which they receive from Departments. The second is their lack of expert staffs.
The Procedure Committee of 1968–69 had a clear idea of what it expected the new Expenditure Committee to do. It wanted the Expenditure Committee Sub-Committees to examine the objectives and priorities of spending, to assess the success of Departments in meeting those objectives, and to examine the effectiveness of departmental management. In general, the Expenditure Committee has not carried out these tasks, partly because it has always preferred to concentrate on issues of the day and on interesting but isolated subjects, and partly because Departments, and above all the Treasury, have refused to specify their objectives, to display the results that they have achieved, and to give information on their effectiveness.
In addition, the Expenditure Committee is ludicrously short of staff. It has about 20 in all. The General Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee, which shadows the Treasury, the Inland Revenue, the Civil Service, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, the Central Office of Information and other public bodies besides, has a Clerk and two light part-time advisers. Its equivalent in the American Congress has 500 staff. Obviously we do not want an American-type army. But without a cadre of expert 143 advice, and in the absence of research assistants for Members, it is impossible for the Expenditure Committee properly to call officials to account and to investigate the effectiveness of those public bodies.
I wholly support the idea of a structure of departmentally related Select Committees, each backed by expert staff employed on their own staff budget, with power to send for persons and papers, backed by sanction, and with the right to debate reports on the Floor of the House.
Two other changes need to take place to make these Committees effective. First, as the Committee recommends, there have to be a wholesale reform in the accounts, regular reports and statistical analyses presented to the House so that Select Committees can probe into the purposes and results of policy. Secondly, as the Committee also recommends, to avoid the domination of Committees by their own staffs and for other very good reasons, every Member of Parliament should be entitled to engage research assistants paid for by the Fees Office.
I welcome particularly the recommendation for reform of our State audit arrangements that are carried out by the Exchequer and Audit Department. About 10 years ago I was first alerted to the gross faults in the system of State audit by the scholarly work of Dr. Normanton, an international authority on State audit. I was sufficiently intrigued to carry out my own study. I found with increasing amazement, that an institution which was generally held at the time to be one of the glories of our constitution—Parliament's watchdog—was by international standards a constitutional disgrace. Since then I have made several speeches on the topic, which are somewhat boring so I shall not repeat them.
Both the Expenditure Committee and the Procedure Committee are convinced that the system of State audit must be radically modernised. An undisturbed Victorian backwater is being vigorously paddled at last. Our audit system is dominated by the Executive to an unhealthy degree, it is inadequate in scope, coverage and expertise, and it must be brought directly under the control of the House. All bodies in receipt of public funds must be made auditable. The audit 144 should cover management as well as bookkeeping, and the auditors should be servants of the House.
At last the Treasury has woken up to the pressure on the matter and is proposing a review of the Exchequer and Audit Act 1866. However, I do not believe that the Treasury is capable of handing power to Parliament, and I think that it will propose no great change. I hope that the House will ensure that the recommendations of the Procedure Committee are carried out when a new Exchequer and Audit Bill is presented.
The most famous and doughty opponent of powerful investigatory Committees is said to be the Leader of the House. From his evidence to the Procedure Committee one can see what he thinks. He said that he wanted to transfer more matters from Committee to the Floor of the House. He disliked the Select Committee procedure because it was non-partisan. He said that the growth of Committees would deny Back Benchers access to the Floor of the House, thus severing the jugular vein. He said that the drain of Members to Committees would destroy the distinctive qualities of the House. He said that if Members were in Committee the Chamber would be empty. He said that the non-partisan nature of Committees would destroy party democracy and that we would drift into a one-party system by consent. He thanked God that many Members chose to be amateurs.
It saddens me to see the Leader of the House, whom I have admired all my political life as one of our greatest parliamentarians, letting himself become so far out of touch with the needs of a living Parliament. He is also, I may say, out of touch with the point of view of his own party, since the Labour Party has produced a statement by the national executive committee called "Reform of the House of Commons", which virtually endorses the whole package put forward by the Procedure Committee.
The Executive cannot be scrutinised properly without investigatory Committees. There is no need for Committees to be non-partisan. One need think only of the Wealth Tax Committee for a start. There is no need for Committees to produce agreed reports; for example, the Expenditure Committee report on the 145 Civil Service. There is no need for Committees to produce reports at all; they can just publish evidence and memoranda; for example, the report of the Expenditure Committee on the European monetary system.
The important point is that Committees are the ony way of getting at the facts and making them available for public comment and for better informed debates in the House. Investigation is the armament of party battle. Our Parliament is too amateurish. I am depressed by the number of amateurs who have spoken up so vigorously for amateurism in the House today. The curse of our country is the establishment of amateurs in all our great institutions. Therefore, shifting this institution a little towards professionalism and expertise will strengthen it, not weaken it. The position taken by the Leader of the House will strengthen not the battle but the theatre of Parliament.
Is it not clear that Parliament has become a full-time job? The report says:We consider that the work of a Member of Parliament should be a full-time job…We believe that the arrangement of Parliamentary sittings to enable Members to pursue outside employment conflicts with our idea of a modern and effective Parliamentary system…we do not believe that the business of the House should be arranged on the contrary assumption ".I believe that this is the first time that a Committee of the House has expressed an opinion on the issue.
§ Sir David Renton
That portion of the report which the hon. Gentleman has just read was put into the report, as he well knows, during the last hour of our 68 meetings. We were sitting during that hour or two owing to a misunderstanding, and as a result the part of the report to which the hon. Gentleman has referred was carried, with only six members out of 16 voting for it; and it is not a recommendation.
§ Mr. Garrett
I think that that is irrelevant. I know that the Tory Party whipped round like crazy to get enough members into the Committee Room to overthrow that recommendation, but the recommendation was made.
§ Mr. Garrett
I can only say that I am surprised that people should get so worked up about it. All I have suggested is that being a Member of Parliament should be a full-time job, but that seems to give some hon. Members an extreme attack of choler. So I shall say it again. Being a Member of Parliament should be a full-time job.
§ Sir David Renton rose—
§ Mr. Garrett
May I finish the point before giving way? As I say, I think that this is the first time that a Committee of the House has expressed an opinion on this issue. The amendment to the report, which was lost only by the casting vote of the Chairman and against the support of all the other Labour members of the Committee, put the matter much more strongly:We consider that the work of an assiduous Member of Parliament has increased so greatly that it should now be seen as a full-time job and that the arrangement of parliamentary sittings to enable Members to pursue outside employment on the excuse that they need to ' keep in touch ' with the everyday world of the courts and the City is contradictory to our idea of a modern and effective parliamentary system. Moreover, present sitting times virtually exclude women with domestic responsibilities from becoming Members. We cannot believe it right to place obstacles in the way of a large group who would bring valuable experience to the House.
§ Sir David Renton
I wished only to point out that we had already sat from 2.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m., a period of five hours, we had a Chairman who had had a heart attack several months before, we had only one Clerk, who had been working like nothing on earth for all that time, and there was a clear understanding that we would have a break for dinner. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] That was perfectly right and proper. But some hon. Members broke that understanding—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"]—yes, broke that understanding. Two hon. Members had outside public engagements. I had a private one of great importance—it was my wedding anniversary, if the hon. Gentleman will recall—and I think it most unfortunate that he should attach any importance whatever to that passage in the report which, as I say, was carried by only six out of 16 members.
§ Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)
If the Committee had started in the morning, Members would not have been there, would they?
§ Mr. Garrett
The amendment went on to propose that the House should meet in the mornings and afternoons up to 7.30 p.m., and that seems to me—
§ Mr. Garrett
That was not carried, but it seems to me to be absolutely right. The change to being a full-time Member of Parliament is crucial and, frankly, is ultimately inevitable. The load of constituency case work, attendance in the Chamber, attendance at legislative and Select Committees, representational and constituency duties and the need for research and briefing in today's Parliament are so great as to demand full-time professionalism.
The argument about the need for a Member of Parliament to keep in touch with the outside world by having employment is nonsense and would be hardly ever mentioned if we were paid more and had adequate support facilities and accommodation. But we shall not get adequate support facilities and accommodation, let alone a properly evaluated pay rate, until more Members become full-time and demand better conditions.
The way to cut through this problem is to arrange the hours of the House so that Members cannot have regular outside employment. There will then be so much pressure for improved facilities—goodness knows, the requirements are small enough: an office, a secretary, up to two assistants, one of whom could be constituency-based, as the amendment which I tabled proposed—that these would very soon be conceded.
We get our Parliament on the cheap, and to be properly effective it needs to be somewhat more expensive. We need more and better-paid auditors, more and better-paid Committee staffs, and more spent on staff and facilities for Members of Parliament. These proposals are evolutionary and modest, but they are essential.
148 Our Parliament works remarkably well in many ways, but it has not developed to match the power of the Executive. Scrutiny and surveillance of the Executive cannot adequately be carried out under our present procedures. Questions of public policy are too technical, too complex and too quantitative, and the bureaucracy is too secretive.
Those who believe that we can carry on in our present fashion belong to a simpler and more romantic age when great issues could be fully evaluated in debate by oratory and persuasion. The bureaucracy would like us to continue in that way, because it hides it from rigorous scrutiny. A parliamentary democracy must change and grow or it dies. The report shows that ours, the first of them all, needs to change and grow.
§ 9.11 p.m.
§ Mr. William Benyon (Buckingham)
I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) said, including his point about full-time Members of Parliament. However, I find it difficult to recognise the Conservative Party as opponents of legislation in view of my experience between 1970 and 1974.
Ever since I became a Member of Parliament, nearly nine years ago, I have been told that this House would never reform itself; that it would do so only if pushed from outside. Indeed, there is a certain amount of historical support for that contention. That is why, to me, this report is like a breath of fresh air. I must tell the Leader of the House that I shall be one of those who will be greatly disillusioned if it is allowed to run into the sand. The matter should come before the House for decision before the general election, for reasons mentioned by other hon. Members. The people who have drawn it up and who have the experience are here now. Many of them will not be here after the general election.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) put his finger on the point when he said that the trouble is that so many people in this House are either Ministers or would-be Ministers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) wisely pointed out that the solution lies in the hands of Back Benchers. It is within our power to do anything we like in this House. It is 149 therefore up to us to see that this report, which has taken so long in preparation and has been so extensively researched, is decided upon by the House.
After that introduction, it may seem churlish if I proceed to pick up two points on which the Committee has not produced the answer that I would like. They are in a sense minor points, but to me they are important. They have been considered by previous Committees. The first concerns Question Time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton described it as a farce. He was right. In paragraph 1.14 the Committee describes how the number of questions has increased over the years, but its survey covers only as far as 1970 or 1971. Since then matters have got much worse. The Committee appears to run away from the logical conclusion. We all know what has happened in Question Time and how it has changed. The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) says that broadcasting has made matters worse, and I agree with him. The point is that questions are not tabled in the pursuit of information; they are used as a peg upon which to hang a political party point. Tabling a large number of questions to Ministers and to the Prime Minister has become something of an Opposition virility symbol. That leads to a matching Government response, so that the balance is kept.
In my neck of the woods an unfortunate league table is published by the local press, and I am sorry to say that one or two of my hon. Friends act as blacklegs in this respect. They table a vast number of questions, which means that I constantly have to explain how I get my information much more quickly and much more effectively by writing direct to Ministers.
I read with considerable interest the report on the Canadian Parliament. I noted that it has no set questions. A Minister is allowed to be questioned for a certain time ad hoc. That is worthy of consideration. I believe that Question Time has had its day. I should like to see only statements and private notice questions prior to debates, and Question Time replaced by the operation of Select Committees. That would provide for the questioning of Ministers and their civil servants. I should like that procedure to 150 be televised. That is the way in which I should like to see the introduction of the televising of our proceedings take place.
I am well aware that the chances of Question Time being abolished are slim. It has entered into the folklore of our parliamentary system. When I talk to schoolchildren I am often asked about Question Time. It is one of the features of our system that they have latched on to. They think that it is a powerful way of controlling the Executive. It is probably only hon. Members who know that it has no effect in controlling the Executive whatever.
If Question Time is to remain, there are one or two changes that could be made. The Table Office should not accept more than a certain number of questions. We should take advantage of modern science and computerise the information that is provided by Government Departments either in reply to questions or in the form of statements. If an hon. Member tables a question when an answer has already been given to it he can consult the Library, but in many instances he does not do that. If the system were computerised, he would be told by a member of the Table Office, who would have pressed the necessary button, that the necessary information was already available.
The other omission concerns Private Members' Bills. The House will be aware that I have had experience of trying to pilot a fairly controversial Private Member's Bill through the House. I think that all hon. Members accept now that no controversial Private Member's Bill will reach the statute book without the tacit or active connivance of the Government. The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) described the position succinctly in his book. The hon. Gentleman has had more experience than most hon. Members of Private Members' Bills. Surely it is essential that one or two small changes be made to tilt the balance slightly in favour of the private Member who wants to introduce a controversial Bill. Likewise, those who introduce non-controversial Private Bills should have the procedure made much easier.
First, we should provide another Committee for Private Members' Bills when there is a log jam. I see that the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) 151 is in his place. The hon. Gentleman was my log jam. He will know exactly what I am talking about. There is a case for having another Private Members' Committee.
The remaining stages of Private Members' Bills are taken on the Floor of the House. The procedure is wrong whereby if the remaining stages are not obtained on one Friday the Bill goes to the bottom of the list and has to start again. It would be much fairer if at least two days were set apart for that purpose.
The main substance of the report may be divided into two parts. The first consists of the recommendations for Select Committee reorganisation. I warmly support the proposals. I take issue only with the proposal that eight Mondays will be set aside for reports to be debated on the Floor of the House on a motion from the Chairman of a Committee. The great weakness of our present system is that reports of Select Committees are not debated on the Floor of the House. I query the proposition that only eight Mondays should be provided. If we are to have 12 Select Committees, surely at least one Select Committee's report each Session should have the privilege of being debated on the Floor of the House.
§ Sir David Renton
My hon. Friend will find that in practice eight Mondays would be the minimum. The fact that it is recommended that there should be eight Mondays for debating the reports of Select Committees does not prevent the Government or the Opposition offering other days for the consideration of further reports.
§ Mr. Benyon
I understand that, but we are not giving more power to Select Committees unless we enshrine in Standing Orders the provision that the report of a Select Committee has to be debated on a motion on the Floor of the House. I note that selection would still be made by the Government through the usual channels. I have not been a Whip for three years for nothing. I know what that means.
I now refer to the selection of members of the Select Committees. This is an important matter. The selection must be made by the House of Commons—not by any other means. That is the point we seek.
152 As a member of the Select Committee, I warmly support the recommendation on the staff provided and the amount of expertise which may be called.
The crunch issue is the control of business on the Floor of the House. I do not agree with Lord Glenamara on many subjects, but I agreed with his remark to the Committee that timetabling would eventually come. It must come. I agree with that. The main reason is that the guillotine is now completely respectable. No odium is attached to its introduction. It is a short, quick measure. It takes three hours on the Floor of the House. There is no control of the Executive. Nobody who has sat in the House through more than one Parliament could take a contrary view.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
Is my hon. Friend allowing for the fact that as a result of most guillotine motions a considerable portion of most Bills goes wholly undebated?
§ Mr. Benyon
Yes, indeed. That is one of my points. That is why I should like to see each Bill, as proposed by the Government, submitted to a senior Committee. This matter was discussed. I cannot remember the exact nomenclature that was used. The Committee of senior Members could say "This Bill demands three days, or six days, or whatever, in Committee." It would do so taking into account the point made by my hon. Friend. Depending on its size and complexity, each Bill would require a different amount of scrutiny. That must come in return for fixed Sessions and an emergency procedure for Bills brought to the House for a special purpose.
I read carefully the report of the Sub-Committee that considered the 10 o'clock rule. This is one of the most important recommendations of the report. It would allow the exercise of a greater control on the Executive than would anything else. I suggest that two-thirds of the Members preseent must vote for the suspension of the rule. The recommendation was 200 Members. That is a great advance on the present position. These changes must go hand in hand with timetabling and fixed Sessions.
I warmly welcome the idea that the dates of the recesses should be fixed. I understand the reasons why the Committee did not recommend a fixed date 153 for the Session and for the Summer Recess, but that must come. That, taken together with a timetable motion for each Bill and control over the suspension of the 10 o'clock rule, would produce a much tighter control over the Executive.
We cannot stop a Government with a majority from getting a Bill, however controversial, through the House. I have sat on Committees dealing with some of the most controversial matters when delaying tactics were used. At the end of the day, whatever happens, the Government can get a Bill through, but we can ensure that the Bill is properly scrutinised and discussed and we can avoid too much legislation coming before Parliament.
It will be an absolute tragedy if the Committee's proposals are not put before the House of Commons for decision. Obviously, we shall all have our reservations. I take to heart the comment that we should not pick holes in the report. I have been guilty of that. I strongly believe that the House of Commons must have a chance to decide, otherwise we shall never get anywhere and our disillusionment will be complete.
§ 9.25 p.m.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
I am glad that at this stage in the debate, after hearing the resistance of the Chairmen of existing Select Committees, who expressed their vested interests very clearly in the first few hours, we now seem to be moving to speeches on each side of the House by Members who are anxious to see change and who, although they see some flaws in the scheme proposed, believe it to be imperative to take action in the near future. Therefore, I very much share the views of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon).
I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdon (Sir D. Renton), who introduced the report, and his right hon. and hon. Friends and my right hon. and hon. Friends who put in so much hard work in order to produce this document for us. It shows the power of the House of Commons to produce a valid and viable report on its own business, just as it can on the business of government. With, I fear, one exception, that is to say, the part of dealing with European matters—I am not sure whether I should speak about it in the absence of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell— 154 I totally endorse what has been said in the report.
It is essential that the growth of the Executive that has occurred in this century and particularly in the last quarter of a century—which in general I welcome and have supported—should be matched by a growth in the effectiveness of this House. The measures put forward in the report are not revolutionary in their nature. Indeed, one might in some ways say that they are relatively modest and that we need to go farther and faster. But they are an important step forward in the evolutionary process of developing tools in this House to scrutinise and to control the activities of the Executive in an effective way.
Some of the analogies with the United States that have been mentioned are totally fallacious, but I was interested to read the evidence in the report from the Sub-Committee that visited Canada. The Canadian example, where there is the same sort of basic relationship between the Executive and the legislature that we have in this country—quite different from that of the United States of America—is relevant for us. The Canadians have been experimenting in recent years with a Select Committee structure that would have considerable similarity to what is proposed in this report. They have found some snags, and we can learn from some of the experience that they have had.
I want to comment on two aspects of the detailed proposals for Select Committees and then to say something about the paragraphs in the report dealing with Europe, but first I want to say something about the problem referred to in paragraph 6.34 and thereafter, dealing with the staff of the Select Committees. There are several important and difficult problems in this area.
There seem to me to be broadly four different categories of staff who are considered in the report. First, quite clearly, there will be a continuance of the role provided for the full-time professional staff of the House—the Clerks and their supporting executive and clerical officers. The Committee recommends a modest increase in the staff of the Department of the Clerk in order that there can be more adequate provision for each of the departmental Select Committees that are proposed.
155 I hope that the Commission that will be responsible for our activities will consider in future how long a Clerk will stay with a Committee. Although I realise that there are problems for the career patterns if Clerks are stuck in one Select Committee for too long, I believe that there are also problems if they are rotated too rapidly.
I think of one Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee on which I now serve where, in the course of this Parliament, we have had three different Clerks serving us at different times. There is something to be said for looking at a slightly longer span of time for a Clerk serving a Select Committee. I realise the difficulties that this causes in terms of the career planning of the Department of the Clerk, but I hope that it can be considered in the context of the new proposals.
Secondly, there are the specialist advisers from outside, who may be either part-timers, as has been the case in the past, or full-timers, as is proposed in one of the more controversial sections of the report. There seem to be two categories of part-timers. Some Select Committees have been able to retain the assistance of a specialist adviser over a number of years. I think, for example, of Brigadier Hunt, who I believe has been adviser to the Sub-Committee on Defence and External Affairs of the Expenditure Committee for seven or eight years and therefore has a good deal of familiarity with the ways of the House and the Committee, as well as with the subjects treated.
Other Sub-Committees and other Select Committees have followed the practice of having a specialist adviser for a specific inquiry, perhaps lasting only a year, or even less. There is the problem that people coming from outside are often unaware of the ways of the House or how they can be most effective.
We need to examine the possibility of having greater continuity in the service of specialist advisers to Select Committees, if they can be found. I realise that that is difficult.
It may be difficult to see how the career pattern of the full-time specialist advisers would operate. We should have to examine that matter very carefully unless we were proposing to set up, perhaps linked to the Library in some way, a new 156 part of the career service of the House. This is a difficult matter, and I am not sure that the Committee has seen through all the implications of that proposal.
There is a fourth category of staff that is essential. I was glad that in paragraph 6.46 the Select Committee referred back to the work of an earlier Select Committee—that dealing with assistance to private Members. I believe that with the strengthening of the role of Select Committees and of their staffs it is important that individual members of the Committee have staff to work for them, as well as the Committee itself having a staff. Otherwise, there is a risk of there being a monopoly view—indeed, a risk of the advice of the specialist advisers being rubber-stamped by the Committee, as I gather one of the witnesses suggested. This is not an easy problem, but it is a matter that we need to work at if we are to have an effective Committee structure.
On points of detail I turn to chapter 7, dealing withThe Power to Send for Persons, Papers and Records ".The Committee and the House were well served by the fascinating memorandum on the history of that power and the problems of its exercise.
There is, and I suspect that there will be in the future, a very sensitive relationship between the new, departmentally related Select Committees and the Departments that they are examining. I have had some experience of that sort of relationship in my eight years' service on the Expenditure Committee on two different Sub-Committees—for four years on the General Sub-Committee and more recently on the Defence and External Affairs Sub-Committee.
I have found that although there is in general a fair degree of good will from civil servants towards Committees at a personal level, there is a resistance not merely by civil servants but, I believe, by departmental Ministers, because of their fear of Select Committees trespassing on the prerogative of ministerial decision-making if they obtain too much information at the wrong time. That will be an inevitable cause of tension between the House and the Executive.
It is natural that Ministers will want to maintain the prerogatives that they feel are theirs. It is also natural that the 157 House will want to have the information, so that there can be the fullest public debate. We shall need to consider very carefully the sort of proposals that are made on this matter in chapter 7.
I shall give four examples of the difficulties faced by the Sub-Committees on which I have served. On the General Sub-Committee, in the early 1970s, there was the difficulty of getting the medium-term forecasts from the Treasury. That has now been achieved in part, but only very recently, and some would say that it is still somewhat inadequate. There was also the problem of getting the PAR reports, which I should have thought were basic to the work of the Expenditure Committee.
More recently, after the Defence Sub-Committee had prepared a fairly extensive report on reserves and reinforcement, and the Minister of Defence had a report prepared by General Shapland on the reserve subject, the Committee was unable to obtain access to it. More recently still, the Committee has been unable to get evidence from a professor of naval history and international relations at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, because technically he is a civil servant and, therefore, it is a matter for the Secretary of State to decide whether he can appear.
These are the sorts of problems that we have had, and I believe we shall continue to have, in terms of getting witnesses and evidence for these Committees. I am glad that the Committee dealt with this matter at some length and that in paragraph 7.25 it has proposed a fairly strong power which in future will enable the House to get papers in circumstances where the Government resist.
The subject of Public Bill Committees has already been referred to this afternoon. A few years ago we had a rare occasion when a Public Bill was referred to a Select Committee. I was fortunate enough to be able to serve on that Committee. Because we no longer have an Army Act every year—the Armed Forces Bill comes only once every five years, once in every Parliament—it has been agreed that that Bill should always be referred to a Select Committee rather than to a Standing Committee. Therefore, the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill met for about five sittings and took evidence in detail, clause by clause, before 158 proceeding to behave like a normal Standing Committee. That was a satisfactory way of dealing with the Bill.
I am not sure whether it would be as easy to deal with a Bill which was a matter of major party controversy, but certainly, for a good deal of legislation, this procedure has considerable merit and I hope that we shall be able to implement it as suggested by the Select Committee.
I now turn to a part of the report where I have certain difficulties; that is in relation to paragraphs 4.13 and 4.15, dealing with the European Community. For the last seven years we have all been aware of the considerable problems that have arisen for the House in its relations with the Executive and the European Community as a result of our membership. Indeed, even at the time of the European Communities Act in 1971, a number of my hon. Friends and myself tabled amendments dealing with this matter. These problems are difficult and complicated, and I recognise in the report the energetic activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and no doubt also those of the right hon. Member for Down, South, (Mr. Powell).
Certainly, much of what is said in the report in terms of the analysis is correct. Where I find some difficulty—I shall try to explain why—is in the recommendations that occur in paragraphs 4.13 and 4.15. Paragraph 4.13 deals with the form of the assurance or declaration that should be given by the Government prior to debate on any Community instrument which has been recommended for debate by the Scrutiny Committee. In paragraph 4.13 the Procedure Committee recognises some of the difficulties of having a binding guarantee by the Government. None the less, it says that the balance of advantages lies with an absolute commitment by the Government that there will always be prior debate.
I believe that the balance of advantage probably lies in the other direction, because of the nature and the way in which the European Community works. It is rarely the case—but occasionally it is the case—that Ministers can get an agreement on a Community instrument that is in the interests of this country by quickly agreeing on something in advance of the opportunity for a debate in the House. 159 When this occurs, it is essential that the Minister should be under an obligation to come back and justify that position before the House.
I believe that it would be absolutely wrong to take the absolutist position that is built into paragraph 4.13 and make it impossible for Ministers—even on those occasions when it is in this country's interests—to come to such an agreement. That is one point of detail which must be looked at again. I am glad to see a little nod of assent from the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton).
§ Sir David Renton
I must confess that I do not think members of the Committee would disagree with me, even the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). What we were laying down was a counsel of perfection. One knows that there would be rare occasions when the Government simply could not hold things up. Indeed, we mentioned one of those occasions—for example, when the House is not sitting.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
No, but I think that my hon. Friend has perhaps mistaken the intention of paragraph 4.13, although it was perhaps my fault in not seeing that it was spelt out in a clearer way. The first three lines state:We recommend that the circumstances in which the Government should be permitted to give their approval to Community legislation should be embodied in a declaratory Resolution, as agreed in principle by the Leader of the House.Therefore, far from agreeing that it should be cast iron, we agree that there are circumstances in which the Government should be so permitted but that those circumstances should be embodied in a resolution. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached that happy state.
§ Mr. Roper
I am grateful for that explanation, although I think both the right hon. and learned Gentleman and my hon. Friend will see that page 122 states: 160the balance of advantage lies with a firm commitment that the Government should not give its final approval to legislation prior to a debate, where debate has been recommended by the Select Committee on European Legislation ".Therefore, there is an apparent ambiguity in the way in which the report is drafted. I am glad of the helpful clarification that we have had from the two members of the Select Committee.
I turn to my second problem, which concerns the recommendation in paragraph 4.15 dealing with the form of the motion under which we should debate Community matters. The recommendation is that this should be done on a Government motion which can take one of three forms—a Government motion to approve, a Government motion to approve, with modifications or qualifications, or a Government motion to disagree. Of course, that is a change from the present situation, under which we have a Government motion to take note, which is subject to amendment by rider by either the official Opposition or by Back Benchers.
I believe that the present system has certain merits because of the rather particular status of Community legislation at the time that it is considered in the House. The point is that Community instruments do not come before the House on the responsibility of the Government. They are not like Government Bills or statutory instruments, because they are not things to which the Government are committed at the time they come before the House. They are the proposals of the Commission of the European Community to the Council of Ministers, which our Government and their eight partners are in the process of negotiating, debating and perhaps amending at the very time they are being debated in this House. Therefore, they do not come on the responsibility of the Government; they are pieces of paper about which the Government want the House to give its opinion.
At a time when, as I have understood, the purpose of such a debate is primarily for Ministers to learn the views of the House before final agreement is reached, it does not seem appropriate for the Government themselves to say that we approve or disapprove. It is by no means clear that in the midst of negotiations it 161 is right for the Government to announce their final negotiations on an instrument before the negotiations have been completed.
Of course, it is the case that by their nature the most important and, therefore, frequently the politically most controversial instruments are the ones referred for debate by the Scrutiny Committee. Often, they are instruments with regard to which the Government will not want to put down a motion to approve or disapprove, because negotiations are still going on in the Council of Ministers.
It may well be said that that is why the Select Committee puts forward the third option—to put down a motion approving the instrument with certain modifications or qualifications. Indeed, that is proposed in paragraph 4.15. But that again creates problems for a Government who are in the midst of negotiations. When a Government are in the middle of negotiations with their Community partners in Brussels, do they want, by spelling out in the modifications and clarifications which they want to have accepted by this House, to show the whole of their negotiating hand? Many problems arise because of the nature of Community business which make it inappropriate for the Government to table a motion stating those modifications and clarifications at that stage.
There is a considerable preference for following the present position, in which the Government, appropriately enough, table a neutral "take note" motion, leaving the opportunity to the House, by amendment, to modify or qualify the motion at an appropriate time. Again, this is a difficult matter. However, before we make a final decision on it, I hope that further examination can be made of the implications of this point.
I am sorry to have spoken on this point for longer than I suggested that I would, Mr. Speaker, but it is a matter of some importance.
As I said earlier, the report represents an important step forward in the working of this House and the balance—it has got sadly out of balance—between this House and the Executive.
Like many who have spoken in the debate, I hope that we shall have in this Parliament a chance not only to debate 162 these proposals but to approve the appropriate Standing Orders to bring them into effect.
§ 9.47 p.m.
§ Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)
I agree very much with what the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) said about the EEC and the great difficulties which face Parliament. I followed his points very clearly. I found very little difference between my views and those of the hon. Member.
First, I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) and his staff for producing this report. It has meant an enormous amount of work. I am sure that the House will be very grateful for that and for the reply given by the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving).
Having read the report, one finds that there is so much in it that it is almost impossible to pick out the important points in a debate of this nature. The Leader of the House put his finger on the matter. He is not in the Chamber at present. I hope that I am not misquoting him. He said that the report is really an exploratory document, giving the House two days in which views may be expressed so that the Government and both sides of the House can have some concept of the reactions to the report of hon. Members of all parties.
I shall use a simple phrase to describe what we are discussing. It is the power of Parliament to control the Executive. I ask myself one question only. Would the implementation of these recommendations help or hinder that process?
First, we must appreciate that there will have to be a very careful selection of the subjects which are to be debated. Looking up the Procedure Committee's report, I see that of 64 reports only 16 were debated. That means that a heavy burden will be placed on whoever has to select subjects for debate, because there will always be a large number that remain undebated.
Some of us forget that the Government are elected to do certain things. In their election manifestos they put forward certain ideals. I make no party point on this matter. Most Governments endeavour during the tenure of their Parliament to 163 carry out their pledges, thus limiting the scope of Parliament.
New Members often think that they can alter procedures, but they find that they are strictly confined and that there is little chance of achieving anything, except on a Friday. An hon. Member's influence in foreign affairs might be greater, because what he says might be reported throughout the world. But in the ordinary run-of-the-mill debate the Government win. We are in abnormal circumstances now with a minority Government, but as a rule any Government can pass any measure that they wish to pass by forcing it through by their own majority.
We all know that when the Government decide that they wish to pass certain legislation the civil servants get together and draft a Bill. Many imperfections occur and are put right in Committee, on Report or in the House of Lords. Perhaps there is room for a change in the procedure for drafting Bills. I am not sure that the extra knowledge that is gained from Committee documents will alter that situation in the slightest degree. It might not influence the Government in their legislation and it will not influence the vote.
It is important that Parliament continues to exert a strong fiscal control. Year after year, and century after century, more and more money is spent. It is important that the House is given more control over public expenditure and Government activities.
The rights of Back Benchers seem to have been forgotten. Back Benchers should be given more opportunity to speak in major debates. The practice is that we hear two opening speeches and two closing speeches, and a few Privy Councillors, but how many Back Benchers have the chance of making a major contribution?
There are two ways of altering the present situation. The House knows that I have always advocated a restriction of 15 minutes for speeches, except by leave of the House. The second way is by suspending the 10 o'clock rule. The difficulty is that Ministers—and for once I am on their side—have jobs to do the next morning. If a time limit is extended, they will have to spend extra time on the 164 Front Bench listening to speeches which they do not wish to hear and their jobs will be made more difficult. However, I suggest that we should extend the proceedings for an hour or more from time to time. That would allow more Back Benchers to contribute to debates.
The problems of the EEC have been well aired. We must consider them carefully. The House will be faced with an additional burden by ensuring that EEC measures are approved by Parliament. It is important that the Government have the power to negotiate on important issues and then return to Parliament. This is something which should be done only on rare occasions.
There is also the matter of questions to the Prime Minister. The public must think it farcical that every question must start with the same ridiculous formula. I cannot see why such questions cannot be properly phrased.
Anything that will help this House in its work of controlling expenditure and exercising the rights given to us by our constituents is to be encouraged. The power to call for persons and papers is something which the House ought to have. The extension of power recommended is fully justified in my view.
Change is required. The report before us requires further extensive examination with the object of ensuring two things: first, that the House does its job of controlling public expenditure, and, secondly, that it gives its elected Members a chance to contribute to major debates on the Floor of the House.
§ 9.57 p.m.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)
Like other hon. Members, I very much welcome this report, so admirably and persuasively presented by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton). I welcome, in particular, the suggested reorganisation of the Select Committees to match Government Departments. That seems to be a much more rational structure than the haphazard one which has grown up.
I welcome the provision that Standing Committees should be allowed to adopt the procedure of Select Committees and to hear expert evidence. I understand why it is suggested that this should be limited to three sittings at the outset. In 165 practice I should have thought that it would be found necessary and desirable to extend this principle to a larger number of sittings.
Changes such as those proposed would undoubtedly be helpful in enabling the House better to do its job as a law-making body and as a check on the detailed actions of the Government. If the House can control or check the detailed actions of the Government, such power will develop into the exercise of influence over Government policy. By making the House more effective in these ways, we shall raise the prestige of hon. Members. This is important in itself and important because it may lead to hon. Members being more independent in their actions.
I want to deal with the importance of hon. Members being more independent. This is the key to the House of Commons performing its third function, that of translating the settled will of the nation into effective political action. This function is not properly fulfilled by what my noble and learned Friend Lord Hailsham described as the elective dictatorship.
It is odd that Labour Members, who argued so convincingly against the concept of the 11-plus examination as one that would decide a child's fate on the basis of one decision taken at a particular moment, should argue that the will of the electorate is carried out properly by the result of a general election held at a particular time at which the elector is presented with a choice between two pre-packaged sets of policies. He has to choose one or the other. Having chosen, because of what I regard as the pernicious doctrine of the mandate, he must swallow it whole during the next five years, regardless of changes in circumstance, atmosphere and the national will.
The House of Commons should be the place where the forces of popular will and the great interests of State meet, clash and resolve themselves into effective action. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym) recently put that forward persuasively. It is in this House, and not in smoke-filled rooms belonging to the TUC or CBI, or even the smoke-filled rooms of Whitehall, that the forces should resolve themselves into action in accordance with what the nation wants, not in its whims but in its settled will.
166 It is only if we cannot so change ourselves as a House of Commons that the nation will need to have recourse to what I regard as a second-best solution. That is what is being put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hailsham, namely, a second Chamber to correct the abuses of power of this House. It is far better for us to bend our outlook to meet the needs of the time.
It may be argued that the only way to do this is by electing this House on a system of proportional representation. Much as I should like to see this, I am too realistic to believe that it is possible in the near future. But is it impossible to make the best of what we have and to have Members more independent in their outlook, to have more Brian Waldens, John Mackintoshes and Humphry Berkeleys? When one embarks on such a catalogue it is inevitable that, speaking from this side of the House, one comes up with more names of Labour Party Members who have demonstrated their independence by crossing the Floor of the House or by voting with the party opposite than one can find from this side who have exerted their independence the other way round. It is difficult to argue this without opening oneself to accusations of partisanship. None the less, that is a valid contention.
We must bring about a state of affairs where more Members are prepared to be defiant—and not just of their party Whips. It is not the Whips who force Members to swallow their consciences and follow a party line even when they believe it is not in the interests of the nation. Much more than the Whips lurking in their little rooms off the Members' Lobby, it is the pressure exerted at the grass roots by a Member's association and local party. I see no easy solution for giving a Member of Parliament more independence in relation to his political party. But this should be an object of policy.
The recommendations of the Committee are a helpful step in that direction. They will increase the prestige and stature of Members of Parliament. I only wish that the Lord President was as open to new ideas in this matter as he has shown himself admirably assiduous in his attendance at these lengthy debates.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
The first report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Session 1977–78, is a cautious and moderate one, but I believe that it deserves implementation in full because it has the seeds of development which could be extremely important for the discharge of the work of this House.
I am obliged to the Select Committee for the attention which its members obviously paid to the memorandum which I submitted to them, and I am grateful for their efforts to meet some of the points in it.
I came to this House 13 years ago, and it seemed to me within a very short time that the major shortcoming of our procedures was the total absence of any form of coherent or systematic Committee structure. It is an absurdity that we should have had a wierd hotchpotch of what are called Standing Committees, which really are ad hoc committees, and Select Committees set up at random for random purposes with no coherence and no specific design.
The major contribution of this report, if it is implemented, is that to a large extent it will put an end to that absurdity and give the House a coherent system of Committees with which to carry out its work. The report itself says that it will provide the House with the possibility of scrutinising the activities of the public service on a continuing and systematic basis. That is the fundamental thrust of the report, and I agree with it.
To those who say that it will diminish the authority of the Chamber or somehow reduce the effectiveness of debates in the Chamber, I argue that in the modern age it is totally absurd to suppose that we can discuss matters of the technical, political and social complexity of nuclear power, microprocessors, genetic engineering, preventive medicine and juvenile delinquency or a whole range of matters for which the House now has to have responsibility and on which it must exercise not only political but some degree of technical judgment during the course of an argy-bargy for seven hours across the Floor of the House. They can be intelligently considered only by some careful study by a group of hon. Members taking evidence from 168 Ministers and civil servants but also from outside experts so that they may gather together a body of evidence on which to form a reasonable judgment.
I am aware that at the end of the day the judgment will be a political one, since we are politicians. Equally, I am convinced that, to arrive at a sensible political judgment, there has to be a sensible process of investigation and probing into the various aspects of the matters under discussion. We cannot carry out that kind of process without an intelligent Committee system.
If for no other reason, the EEC dimension must compel us in this direction. It is absurd to suppose that this House can exercise any effective surveillance, let alone control, over EEC matters unless we have some machinery whereby the various aspects of the EEC's policies, programmes and proposals can be considered systematically by groups of hon. Members who have an interest in and a special knowledge of such matters as agriculture, energy, finance or whatever it may be. It will not do to go on pretending that in an hour and a half between 10 o'clock and midnight or between midnight and two o'clock in the morning the House can come to some sensible conclusion on complex proposals which may affect hundreds of thousands of workers and other people in this country as a result of some decision by the EEC Commission.
By creating this structure of Committees, I believe that it will become possible for the House to take matters which are put forward by the Commission or which come to the attention of the various components of the EEC, to look at them carefully and to come to a considered and sensible conclusion about them. On that ground alone, if on no other, I believe that the Committee's recommendations for the 12 specialist Select Committees should be fully supported.
As regards the structure of the Committee system, almost anyone could think of 12 Committees with, perhaps, slightly different variations of grouping from those suggested in the report. When one examines the suggested 12 Select Committees, however, they seem to be a fair 169 and reasonable distribution of departmental responsibility, and I do not disagree with them.
Like some of my hon. Friends, I would be sad to see the disappearance of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I have been a member for many years. I have great admiration for the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer), who has chaired that Committee with great success over a long period. It is perfectly possible that the proposed new Committees covering the Departments of Energy, Education and Science and Industry can cope successfully and effectively between them with the subjects hitherto explored by the Science and Technology Committee. While I should be sad to see the disappearance of that Committee, I believe that its work could be carried on under the new system.
Likewise, I would be sorry to see the disappearance of the Select Committee on Overseas Development. I have served on that Committee and I believe that it has been valuable. However, its work could be adequately discharged by a special Sub-Committee of the proposed Select Committee on Foreign Affairs as set out in the report. I see no insuperable practical difficulty in that case.
I agree entirely that the Public Accounts Committee should be retained. However, I am inclined to depart from the judgment of the report in the matter of the Committee on the Ombudsman. I should be inclined to keep that as an independent body. It fulfils an almost quasi audit role such as that fulfilled by the Public Accounts Committee in a strictly financial sense. That Committee is important in matters of civil liberties, and I should be disturbed if its work was dispersed over the 12 Select Committees as suggested in the report.
§ Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)
My hon. Friend has not referred to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. Has he a judgment to make on the recommendations in regard to that Committee?
§ Mr. Hooley
I believe that the same principle applies there as to the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The work that has been done by that Committee over the various range of bodies that it has scrutinised could be 170 discharged by the new Committee on Industry, or Energy, or one or two of the others. The nationalised industries are responsible, through the appropriate Minister, to different Departments, and I do not see why they cannot be adequately scrutinised under the Committee system proposed in the report.
§ Mr. John Ellis
I asked my hon. Friend for his comments on that matter because I felt it to be worth while. Does he not agree that there is some benefit with the nationalised industries—whether steel or electricity—in the Committee being able to compare how the different industries attack their problems? If different Select Committees each deal with their own nationalised industries, it may not be possible for the Committees to get that kind of information.
§ Mr. Hooley
I believe that the proposed Departmental Committee on Energy would be perfectly capable of scrutinising the gas, electricity and oil industries or whatever, just as the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries does at the moment. Within the range of their commitments the other Departmental Committees could do that job.
§ Mr. English
My hon. Friend is quite right. We thought of this point. We proposed that, in so far as there might be features common to nationalised industries, a Sub-Committee of the Departmental Committee of Departments which have nationalised industries should undertake that co-ordination. We cannot have the tail wagging the dog—a nationalised industry Committee with a set of seven Sub-Committees to deal with each Department of State. Instead, we have proposed one Sub-Committee to cover several Departments of State dealing with a nationalised industry.
§ Mr. Hooley
I think that that point has now been reasonably well ventilated.
I regard a Committee membership of 10 as too small. If the Committees are to carry out scrutiny and other responsibilities, as is implied in the report, a membership of 10 will probably be inadequate. If it is proposed that the scrutiny process should be carried out by 12 Committees each with 10 members, that is only 120 hon. Members out of 500 Back Benchers, and if the system develops, as I am sure and hope it will, far more than just over 171 one-quarter of the Back Bench membership of the House would want to participate. I am sure that over a period more hon. Members would want to do that, and I am not at all pessimistic about finding an adequate number of Members to provide the Committees with a larger membership than 10.
I am puzzled by the proposition in the report that only the Departmental Committees on foreign affairs, home affairs and Treasury matters should have the power to set up Sub-Committees for investigation purposes. I cannot see why a Committee which will be covering a Department with the enormous responsibilities of, say industry, energy or health and social services should not have the power to set up Sub-Committees. I doubt whether it would be able to do its work effectively without that power.
I turn now to the working of the Committees. I agree that the publication of evidence by newspapers before a Committee reports to the House should be permitted. Our Select Committees sit in public, and it is therefore absurd to have this technical objection to disclosure of evidence or of any memorandum submitted to a Committee simply on the ground that a report has not been made to the House. What makes the matter worse is that in the case of a lengthy inquiry a report might appear 12 or 18 months after the evidence has been given. I therefore agree with the recommendation on that point.
I am dubious about the proposition that every hon. Member should be given personal research assistants. My preference would be an enormous strengthening of the research and information capacity of the House of Commons Library. There is a powerful argument for that in any case. However, it would be more economical and efficient for the capacity of the Library for dealing with research, statistics and so on to be immensely expanded so that Committees could, as of right, and without impairing the day-today work of the Library, request information that they required for particular inquiries.
There is the curious proposition that the Chairmen of these new Committees should be given a special payment. I see no reason for that. There are already 172 enough quasi payroll Votes in this House. The fewer the number of Members who have differential payments from the normal run of Back Benchers, the better. There is obviously a case for paying Ministers, but I cannot see why the Chairmen of Select Committees should be paid. That could raise all sorts of invidious difficulties.
I turn now to the powers of the proposed Committees. It is right that they should be able to require the attendance of Ministers, including Secretaries of Stale, as needed. It is right that departmental Estimates should be referred to them for consideration and that they should have the power to consider statutory instruments and EEC documents. The Committees should also be kept fully informed on the progress of EEC proposals within their fields of interest. I believe those to be five essential powers, and I cannot see how the Committees could function effectively without them.
I turn briefly to three other points in the report not related to the central proposal, which I entirely support. I believe there to be some merit in the idea of having a Select Committee procedure on Public Bills so that the Standing Committee may take some evidence and consider the general matters relating to a Bill before proceeding to the clause-by-clause examination.
I entirely approve of the suggestion that the House should meet on Fridays from 9.30 to 2.30 instead of the present absurd arrangement under which we waste three hours before we begin at 11 o'clock. On a considerable number of occasions I have encountered an awkward conflict between honouring an obligation to constituents and appearing in the House for business which was important and of special interest to me. If we could move our Friday business forward by an hour and a half, that would enable most English Members certainly—and possibly assist Scottish Members as well—to take part in debates on business of the House on a Friday and still honour commitments which they might have made to constituents long before.
I think it sensible also that the dates of recesses should be agreed right at the beginning of a Session. Again, one wishes to make commitments to constituents or other bodies, and it is extremely helpful 173 to know precisely how the Session will work out.
I am disappointed that the Committee funked the issue of morning sittings. It is quite absurd that in this day and age we should waste four perfectly good hours of daylight between 10.30 and 2.30 and not commence our business at a sensible hour. It is entirely feasible for the House to begin its business at, say, 10 o'clock or half-past 10, have an appropriate time at which business breaks, and, if necessary, have Committee meetings in the early evening. The present system under which we transact so much of our business between about 11 o'clock at night and two o'clock or three o'clock in the morning is quite indefensible. I am sorry that the Committee did not tackle this problem head on and make a firm recommendation.
But the central thrust of the report is that the House should provide itself with a coherent and systematic Committee system, and I regard this as a valuable—indeed, indispensable—proposition, and it has my full support.
§ 10.23 p.m.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
The debate has been remarkable for the report which has preceded it, which has given us an opportunity to study the working of Parliament and to reflect on that work over a good many years, trying to put our minds to the question of how we can reform our institution of Parliament, but it has been remarkable also, if I may say so, for the skill of the members of the Committee who have contributed to this thoughtful exercise. I think in particular here of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), who presented the case for reform and for acceptance of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee.
I have found the occasion extremely valuable because this is one day, and tomorrow is another, when we shall be determining the shape which Parliament should take and, I hope, will take. I am not saying that I accept the Committee's report in every particular, but this two-day debate is of great significance because it will determine an evolution of Parliament which will be little short of revolution.
174 The Committee proposes to the House that we accept drastic changes in the way we go about our work. By and large, I agree with most of those drastic changes. I have for long felt that consideration of Public Bills in Standing Committee upstairs should be preceded by, if not altogether replaced by, a system of examination in which the adversary aspect of politics is taken out. Let us have that on Second Reading. I am very pleased that we are at least to have the opportunity, if the recommendation is accepted, of three days of examination in detail, sitting as a Select Committee on a Bill, of all its points, being able to call witnesses as we can in Select Committees now.
I agree, too, with the observations that have been made about the place that Question Time has in our affairs. For many years I have regarded Question Time as little more than a joke. I regard Prime Minister's Question Time twice a week as a complete and absolute farce. I should not mind if the facility of Question Time were removed and replaced by that which is proposed by the Procedure Committee—namely, a more accurate method of questioning, scrutinising and restraining the Executive by means of the proposed Select Committees.
We overplay our hands at Question Time. We overplay the publicity value of Question Time. We do ourselves no good in so doing. I am thinking not only of broadcasting, which has revealed what Parliament is like when Parliament chooses to play theatre. To some extent, performing in the Chamber is like performing on the stage, with the exception that we have to produce our own scripts. It is a pity that we have allowed the facility of getting at the Executive, of getting at the Government, of questioning Ministers and even breaking Ministers to become somewhat debased. Questions have become trick questions. There are even more tricks at the Dispatch Box that are designed to help Ministers parry the questions that are put to them. I have no hesitation in saying that Question Time has slid as part of our institution.
The Procedure Committee has recommended a better structure of our Select Committees. The 12 Select Committees that have been proposed to match the Government Departments are my principal consideration. Some of the other 175 Select Committees will be retained, especially those concerned with the private business of the House. I am glad that it has been recommended that major Committees be retained such as the Public Accounts Committee and the Committees concerned with the scrutiny of European legislation and statutory instruments. I have served on Select Committees for almost all the 13 years that I have been in this place. It is nearly 13 years. For many years I was on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. For four or five years I have been a member of the Public Accounts Committee.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) about the place of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries and its shortcomings. I enjoyed serving on the Committee. I thought that it did valuable work for Parliament and for the public. It was the only mechanism we had for examining and questioning the workings of the great industries that Governments had created. However, as the hon. Gentleman said, the Committee may go only as far as the industry itself. It cannot go behind the chairmen of the corporations to ascertain, for example, the strategy of Ministers and of the Government for energy and transport. The hon. Gentleman illustrated that shortcoming only too vividly.
It is true that transport is split between Department and Department. British Airways was surprised by the £1,500 million expenditure by British Rail on the London to Manchester and London to Liverpool routes. It was surprised by that decision as it knew it would have a drastic effect on its air traffic on the same routes.
The better structuring of the Select Committees will undoubtedly make matching departmental Select Committees much more important. I understand that that is the intention. It is true that hon. Members will become more expert as the 10 of them on each of the separate Committees get down to the nitty-gritty of working closely with advisers and are able to send for papers and persons and to question civil servants and Ministers as we do at present in Select Committees.
Hon. Members become expert in one area after another. That is no doubt good. Back Benchers will become busier 176 and feel more important. The Committee went out of its way to say "That is not the object of these recommendations. We do not seek to make work for work's sake or to create conditions whereby hon. Members may have greater job satisfaction." Nevertheless, there will be greater job satisfaction.
However, that is not the reason for our being here. We are not here to please ourselves. We are here to serve the public, our constituents and the country, and to help the Government to govern better. The Opposition have that duty as much as members of the Government. Will Back Bench Members be better employed and more effective in pursuing their duties to their constituents and the country?
A Back Bench Member may sound effective, even today, in a Select Committee such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Nationalised Industries Committee or the Expenditure Committee when he or she puts questions to a no doubt nervous permanent secretary and receives civil and cautious answers. Equally, such questions put to the chairman of a nationalised industry are listened to and answered with great care and courtesy. The hon. Member involved feels that he is in a position of some importance. He goes away feeling that he is a bigger man than he would be if he stayed only in this Chamber, trying to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from time to time in our debates.
Having felt more important, will he achieve anything more than an appearance in a blue book which is printed following the investigation by each Select Commttee? His questions will appear in small print. Thick books will be tucked away on shelves in offices and libraries. That is where the work of these important Back Bench Members will be found. Their work will be reported in this Chamber. We are to have at least eight days, on Mondays. That is a good day. I hope that we shall all—not just the 10 hon. Members involved—turn up to take part on those days when Treasury matters, foreign affairs and defence are being studied and debated. I hope that we regard those matters as important.
We cannot force Members of Parliament into this Chamber any more than we may take a horse to water and make 177 it drink. We must give them a purpose at the end of the road. The debate must not be simply an occasion for consideration and hearing interesting expert speeches from members of the Committee who have become more knowledgeable, having had the advantage of getting closer to the subject and to Government thinking. There must be an event at the end of the day such as a vote. I am not saying that it must be a vote. Some of our greatest debates—not on Bills—do not necessarily end in a vote. Such debates take place when we consider matters of moment.
I am concerned that this place should not wither and fade away. I strongly support evolution, or revolution, towards a more structured system of committee study and restraint and control of the Executive. I am sure that the Executive will welcome that. Nobody would welcome the fading and withering away of the House of Commons.
Members of Parliament may become much more knowledgeable. No doubt they will become much more feared by those in Government—Ministers, civil servants and representatives of the nationalised industries and local authorities—with whom they rub shoulders. They may be much more respected as a result of the greater knowledge they have developed. That is one consideration, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the career of a Member of Parliament to be either knowledgeable or feared.
The question is, shall we be more effective in our scrutiny and restraint of the Government? It is one thing to criticise the Government in Committee upstairs or to send for the civil servants, but something has to happen, and it is here in this House that it has to happen. In the end, the action has to be brought back here. This is where action has to be taken. That is the only thing that will make the Government Front Bench realise that the House of Commons is still important. What happens in a group of 10 experts upstairs will not worry anyone on the Government Front Bench, or any Government Front Bench that might replace it in the future.
On balance, I think that we shall be making a considerable advance, but I am concerned about what will happen when 178 the reports of the Committees are debated here. I am concerned that they may turn out to be rather dull affairs and poorly attended, as are the debates on the Public Accounts Committee. For such progress there is a price to pay. I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not present. He knows that when I talk about this Chamber I echo perhaps his as yet unspoken thoughts in this debate. I like this Chamber. I confess to being rather unprofessional as a Member. I confess to not being very full-time. But I confess to having a love for this place. I had that love for this place long before I came here. I confess to having a love for this place as it was 200 or 300 years ago, with all its faults. I have such a love for it, with all its faults, as it is now, and I shall go on loving it.
I should like to think that it is in this Chamber that a Member of Parliament will still make his name—and lose it, perhaps. I should like to think that, whatever we may do in the next few days and in the next few weeks, if we eventually vote on these propositions we shall not take away the opportunity for a Member to shine in this place rather than in a small room upstairs.
Would great names such as those of Churchill, Bevan, Macmillan and Macleod have been made upstairs? Would the Leader of the House have made his name in a small back room upstairs? Would the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) have become famous for his investigations in a small back room upstairs?
§ Mr. Crouch
I know that the right hon. Member does a lot of work in Committee, and I am very glad that my right hon. and learned Friend has reminded me of that. Indeed, some of those who have spoken today are among the greatest workers in the back rooms upstairs. They have made contributions today of outstanding thoughtfulness and constructive-ness. I have listened to many speeches of different tones about the type of reform that we are proposing.
I recall our late friend John Mackintosh, who was such a great contributor to Parliament and a sustainer of this place. It was when John Mackintosh spoke from the Labour Benches that I heard him, 179 and I came in to hear him whenever I saw his name go up on the screen.
I am really saying to the reformers, and to my right hon. and learned Friend—for whom I have such an admiration as a reformer and for his powerful advocacy today of this reform—that I want to save them from themselves a little, just by pausing, because we are being asked to accept what is, as it stands, a rather over-structured system. It reflects, in a way, what this Parliament has become. We are rather afraid of this place. We are afraid that we cannot do our job with the Members on the other side of the House. We want to get them into a private room and to have new rules. In the end, we have to face them across the Table. We have to catch Mr. Speaker's eye, even if we have to wait six hours in order to do it.
I have heard many hon. Members saying today that they have lost patience with the Chamber because they can do more important work elsewhere and get more words said by catching the Chairman's eye more often in Committee. But this is the place where we must have the patience. There are many hon. Members present today, not Privy Councillors, who sit diligently and patiently. Some sit not so patiently, but in a frustrated way, and eventually catch the eye of the Chair. If they do not, they raise a point of order on which they can make themselves heard. That is the nature of this assembly, so different from other democratic assemblies in the world. We must sustain it in that way.
§ Mr. English
I have been listening with great care to all that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he not think that there is room for both—that there are, and always will be in an assembly of 635 people, such people as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is capable of dominating the House by a speech but rarely sits on a Committee? There are others more capable of working in a Committee than with a set oration in the front of the House. But is there not room for both? When we are suggesting that 120 people might sit on an effective set of Committees, that will not take away all 635 people from the House.
§ Mr. Crouch
I accept that, of course. I have always taken that view, and it 180 is really the purport of what I am trying to say—that there must be room for both. But I want to add a word of warning—that we must ensure that there is a place for both.
This assembly of Parliament has become different over the years, as we are all aware. We are somewhat smaller than our ancestors, though we may be more expert. We must see that this place does not go the way of the Floor of the Congress and the Senate of the United States, where I could have a speech printed and handed in. My constituents could read it in the official record next day, but I would never have had to speak. That is what I want to avoid.
I do not believe for a minute that it will happen here, but I do not want everyone saying "I am too busy to go into the Chamber today. I must get up to my Committee. That is where I am a kingpin." Sometimes when I am on the Public Accounts Committee I want to be down here, and I cannot leave the Committee because something very important is already in train. I may already be involved from the previous meeting in questioning, and it would be discourteous to a permanent secretary who has come with his entourage of assistants and advisers not to be in my place up there when I should be here.
When we eventually interpret the recommendations, we must not neglect to take these matters into account. I do not want to lose the Chamber. Nor do I want to lose the complete Member of Parliament, like the "compleat angler" the whole man. I do not want to be a professional. I do not really want to be an expert. I do not mind having enough knowledge to face experts, but I do not want to be an expert.
All Members must be something like all-rounders when we go back to our constituencies, when we go round the country, as everyone has acknowledged today. I must dismay hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), whose speech and memorandum I very much admired, but I do not want to be a full-timer. I do not want to be a nine-to-fiver. I shall put in more time, but I shall have to do it in the peculiar, unprofessional way that characterises this place.
181 Parliament was not designed for our convenience or, I regret, for that of our wives, husbands or children. Those who are elected by the people are elected to come as their representatives, even at difficult times of the day, through the day and into the night. This place is for the government of the people. We are their representatives, and we must play that role more than anything else we think of.
I accept reform, but with these few reservations. Let us reform, but let us have a little care. The Chamber itself must be reformed. How dull it is when we have six hours of dull debate that we need not have, when the measures going through could be dealt with in two or three hours, or even less. That is a matter which is easily taken care of. But it is still in the Chamber that the great decisions will be made. This is where control over the Government will be effected, and this is where history is made—not in the small rooms upstairs.
§ 10.44 p.m.
§ Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)
The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) said that decisions were made in this place. I think that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) will agree—as we both served as Whips together—that decisions are taken not in this place but in the Lobby where the numbers are counted. That is the point at which real decisions are taken.
I suppose that I approach the report in an over-simplistic way. Though my remarks may be critical, I wish to pay tribute to the work that has been done. I agree with a large part of what I have heard this evening. I shall deal with one or two minor points. I do not think that we can reduce the role of this Chamber in the making of major decisions or the fact that those decisions are made, as I said, in the Lobby when the numbers are counted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) made the point that when we consider, let us say, the nuclear energy industry, we are all concerned about what we are doing to the environment. It may not be the experience of other hon. Members, but when we come to vote on such issues I often wonder whether we are taking steps which might destroy the environment. How do we know?
182 I spent some time looking back at the history of the Industrial Revolution to see what happened. It is a changed situation today. We have nationalised industries, and many experts work elsewhere for the Government. It may interest hon. Members to know that with the advent of the railway, debates took place about how it would affect and pollute the environment. The great engineers of those days, besides designing the railways, spent half their time in this place. The procedure was different, because very often it was done by Private Bill. But they gave us the benefit of their knowledge and experience, so that hon. Members could be apprised of the detailed considerations before they came to any decision.
I am always sorry that we have less expertise in our ranks. Who knows—the present engineer or nuclear technologist may say "I am paid to do a job." The engineer may say "I design a bridge. Whether people use it for the betterment of mankind or whether they jump off its structure and commit suicide is a matter for the politicians." This may be a different trend which we must take into account.
I do not think, therefore, that the hon. Member for Canterbury has anything to fear. The Chamber is the set piece for debates. What occurs in the Select Committees is important. We can have discussion and we can put questions. So far in this debate, I do not think that I have heard mention of the power of the Government of the day, through Ministers, to appoint chairmen and members of the boards, which is the real difficulty with regard to Select Committees. The difficulty is whether, when one asks questions, one can get the answers.
I do not criticise people in this regard. One has some loyalties in these matters. Although I am on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, I am not on the particular Sub-Committee that considered steel, and I do not want to open old wounds. But the experience of that Committee demonstrated that it was acting on behalf of this House in sending for people to give evidence, calling for papers and requiring certain knowledge. When co-operation was refused, the Committee demonstrated the power of the House by showing that it had the ability to bite.
183 I have always taken the view that my job, in so far as I was a member of a Committee, was to ask the appropriate question so that the answer was on record for the benefit of the House. There is enormous merit in reaching some common ground, particularly when a Committee is composed of hon. Members of different political persuasions. For instance, when we considered the steel industry, Conservative Members were perhaps concerned not so much about its efficacy with regard to the nationalised industries but rather with whether we could hive it off back into the private sector. Of course, we did not reach conclusions on those points. That would have been an absurdity. But, because we were able to ask questions and come to some decisions, other hon. Members were able to say "In so far as they have been able to agree, it has enormous merit ". The Lord President was almost bristling with regard to certain contributions that were made. One could almost feel his sense of outrage, precisely because it was feared that efficient Select Committees might detract from the authority of this Chamber. I therefore hope that we shall see the changes proposed in the general thrust of the report.
I certainly approve of full-time Members of Parliament. The concept of part-time Members is a manifest absurdity. Of course, any experience that an hon. Member brings to the House is relevant, particularly with regard to his former employment. But how can a coal miner retain part-time employment down the pits and come to this House at the same time? The concept of part-time Members may be all right for lawyers or for hon. Members who accept a certain amount of lecturing at universities, but with regard to the wide diversity of jobs that are done it is not possible to bring a working experience to this House, although it is possible to bring an experience about one's former job.
There is another reason why Select Committees are important. I do not happen to believe in specialisation, although some of my hon. Friends do. I came here to represent my constituents. I have had the honour of sitting for two constituencies. The first was Bristol, North-West, which contained docks. In order to serve my constituents there, I 184 had to know something about docks. Therefore, I found out. At that time we were building Concorde, so I needed to know something about the aircraft industry. I profited from the pursuit of those matters.
Now that I sit for Brigg and Scun-thorpe, my main interests are agriculture and steel. Frankly, I became interested in serving on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries when I learnt that it questioned the heads of all the organisations relating to British Steel. It is an irony of fate that, having been appointed to that Select Committee, I was allocated to a Sub-Committee which does not deal with the steel industry, although it considers its reports in full.
However, one learns along the way. My own Sub-Committee has dealt with many matters, including water authorities, the Bank of England, Cable and Wireless, the Independent Broadcasting Authority and even the Tote. It has been a valuable experience looking at all those industries and getting some expertise in those areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) may wish to intervene, but, as I understand the report, I can see the logic in building a coherent structure stretching down to departmental level that will generally follow the Expenditure Committee. If that is the experience of my hon. Friend, I bow to it. I have served on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, and it has been of rich benefit. We have looked at many huge industries, all of which belong to the nation and some of which are completely different in character. Nevertheless, we have sought to make comparisons as to how strategy has evolved in one industry as opposed to another.
I am not one of those who say "We must have change and forward thrust" and then, when it comes to my corner, say "It is sacrosanct. We must do nothing about it." I hope that I am not putting forward that kind of argument. However, it is a serious argument that my particular Committee feels that, rather than be contained in a particular Department, there is benefit in our having the opportunity to enlarge our knowledge by looking at other nationalised industries which may not come under the same Department.
185 I stress that I sincerely hope that in this regard we shall look at that proposal very carefully. There is diversity. I can appreciate that the argument can be made in regard to other Committees, but on this aspect there is a differing case to be made.
One of the things that we learnt from the chairmen of the nationalised industries is that from time to time they meet each other to discuss the problems and how they surmount them, and to discuss matters of common interest to huge organisations serving the nation. I can appreciate the benefit of that and the benefit in a continuing relationship between Committees, particularly the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, and a cross-section of chairmen of nationalised industries, not necessarily under the same Department.
I have repeated that because it is important. I hope that we shall get a degree of consent for this proposal. In these cases, it is notorious that the two Front Benches are concerned with the status quo. Ministers and prospective Ministers will want to keep the reins of power in their hands. Recent evidence that the Committee on which I serve has taken from chairmen of nationalised industries has been very enlightening as to the degree of control exercised—the special directives, the arm-twisting. It is right that this House, in the final analysis, should control those bodies. It is not merely a question whether they shall return a profit, or of what the Act says, because as Parliament made the Act it can change it.
One of the most important things in discussions between whichever Minister it is, whatever his ideology, and the chairman of a nationalised board, and the kind of directives and suggestions that are made, is that it is open to Parliament to debate those questions. We ought to push out the boundaries of the power of the Select Committees in the sense that they act for the whole House. It is not that they make decisions. For example, if there is an argument as to whether a nationalised industry should buy aircraft made in Britain or made elsewhere, Parliament should decide in the end and say whether it is in the national interest that it should buy an aircraft produced in Britain rather than an aircraft which, on commercial considerations, it would 186 buy elsewhere. But it is not for Ministers to make these decisions one way or the other on their own. It is for them to report to this House and for the House to make such decisions.
Therefore, it is important that Committees of the House should be able to ask the questions. Chairmen of nationalised industries say that they object to receiving directives which are in conflict with an Act of Parliament. But they do not object provided that their point of view—whatever it is—is reported to the House in an unbiased way.
If the House appoints a chairman to these important boards, we should be able to listen to the evidence. We appoint servants to do jobs—to run the electricity and steel industries. We appoint such people to do certain tasks. Often they say that they are asked to do conflicting tasks. They say that they cannot do a certain task without Parliament taking certain action. The dialogue takes place between the Minister—of whatever Government—and the heads of the nationalised boards. Parliament does not necessarily know what is going on or what the arguments are.
This is where the Select Committees come in. We have built up a good relationship with the chairmen of the nationalised industry boards. My Committee's relationship with the Governor of the Bank of England is good. I do not suppose that he is an ally of mine politically. He tells us about the lifeboat operation and what he is doing about that situation now. He uses the Committee correctly and wisely.
I support the Procedure Committee. It has done a good job. It would be a retrograde step to take action which would inhibit the Nationalised Industries Committee from gaining the experience of the various nationalised industries. I hope that Back Benchers will not allow the Front Bench to push the issue away from us. In general, the report should be acted upon.
§ 11.3 p.m.
§ Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
I have listened to most of the debate, but no hon. Member has referred to the report's recommendation that at certain times speeches in the House should last only 10 minutes. I believe that that 187 time has been reached, and I propose to keep my speech down to 10 minutes.
I have been a Member of the House for nearly 20 years. I have been a member of the Estimates Committee, the Procedure Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. I am now on the Chairmen's Panel.
I have been fascinated today by the nonsense which has been expressed about "whole-timers" in the House and the inference by Labour Members that such hon. Members are not doing their job particularly well. I defy any Labour Member to say that he has a better record in attending Committees or Question Time than I. I have missed four days in 20 years. I do not consider that I am a full-time Member of the House. Since becoming Chairman of a Committee, I have missed not a single word of any Committee that I have had the honour to chair. But I do not consider that I am a full-time Member of the House.
I do not consider that being a full-time Member is a proper job for a Member of Parliament, because such a person becomes an oral civil servant. To do his job properly, a Member of the House should be in touch with industry and with the outside world. He should not sit like a monk in these premises. I have always looked upon this place as a public meeting of a board of directors, when the directors talk to the shareholders. I have always looked upon a Select Committee meeting as a board meeting.
One Committee which has not been discussed so far is the party committee. It does not come within the terms of reference of the report. We all know that it is at that meeting that the policy of the party is made and reflected in Government proposals. We all know that the party committee is really a working committee where policy is produced. It is a meeting where the views of one's constituents are distilled into party politics. We have not discussed that, and we would be out of order to do so at length. If we are to take our job seriously, we must have expert guidance in Select Committees. We talk so blindly about controlling the Executive. I have never heard such pompous folly. How can 600-odd Members control thousands of civil servants? They can no more do 188 so than a board of directors of a large company can control the company unless it has the respect and confidence of the work force and unless the rest of industry believes that it can make a contribution.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). I have told him that I would mention him, and he has explained that he could not remain to hear the debate. He said during his speech that when he left a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee he felt rather better for having attended. I am sorry to say that when I attend meetings of the Public Accounts Committee I feel very humble. I ask myself "Have I contributed anything to help the machine get on? Does the civil servant feel that my contribution has helped his Department? Has it helped the case?" This is our duty as Members of Parliament. How can we translate that feeling into reality in this House? How can we make our contribution? We can make it, I suggest, by bringing to bear the experience we have had, by seeing the world outside. We can bring to bear our experience over the years.
The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) said that a coal miner elected to this place has to be a full-time Member because he cannot go back to the mines. The hon. Member has got the matter quite wrong. We do not expect a coal miner to go back and work on the face, any more than I would be expected to go back and lay bricks because I once laid bricks. A coal miner who had a contribution to make here would bring his experience and knowledge to this House and show the nation how to improve productivity. If he had to go back for a time and work in management in the mines, he would be better for it.
§ Mr. John Ellis
I have never done a job where my employer would have permitted me to lob off to the House of Commons or anywhere else for two or three days a week. I was a shipyard worker. What would my employer have said if I had told him that I wanted to be off tomorrow because I had a debate at the House? It is all right if someone has a part-time director's job.
§ Mr. Costain
I agree that until a man gets into this place he will not find anyone who will allow him to come to the 189 House of Commons on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When he gets here, he should not devote the whole of his life to this place. He should get out and keep in touch with industry.
§ Mr. Emery
I was here for the major part of the start of the debate. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind that there are a large number of coal miners who are face workers and officials who serve on local councils? They are given time off for service with local authorities. Why should they not at the same time be able to apply themselves in other areas? It is wrong to suggest that, because one is a coal face worker, a labourer or working with one's hands, one cannot be given time off for other executive responsibilities.
§ Mr. Costain
I thank my hon. Friend for intervening. But I said that I would speak for only 10 minutes, and I did not want him to take five of them.
If the House is to be up to date and efficient, we must use the best of all systems. When I was on various technical committees, I was shown in confidence Bills which were to be presented on First Reading three months later. As I was a Member of Parliament, it created suspicion whether I should see the Bills when they had been sent by a Government Department for the criticism of industry. As a Member of Parliament I was not allowed to see them, but as a member of a technical committee I was allowed to see and criticise them. That is farcical.
I welcome the idea that a Bill on First Reading should be in a form that we can see. A Bill should also be subject to examination in Committee by experts. I am chairing a non-controversial Bill through Committee. It is a technical Bill that deals with pilots and marine matters. We have a gallery full of experts. It would be preferable to have taken evidence directly from them rather than each Member rushing out to the corridor and having whispered into his ear what he should say. Such a Bill should be considered by experts at its first stage.
It is a farce in Committee that a Minister has to have notes passed to him. I like the Canadian idea which comes out in the report that a civil servant can sit 190 next to the Minister in the same way as a Clerk can sit next to the Chairman in Committee and help him to answer questions, not relying on how quickly he can scribble a note and whether the Minister can read it. That is not the way to legislate. The experts should be sitting by the Minister giving him advice. At certain stages of a Bill, the civil servants should be allowed to give evidence in Committee.
There is much need for reform, but it must be taken gradually in ways in which we in this House have the benefit of experience. There is no explanation for it, but amongst the 630-odd Members of the House we seem to have one of everything, an expert on most things. It is sheer coincidence. Can we use that expert knowledge for the benefit of the House and the nation?
§ 11.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
I want to take issue briefly with the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) on what he said about the role of the full-time as against the part-time Member. But, first, I must say, as a member of a Select Committee, that I have found this a fascinating debate. We have learnt a great deal from the speeches. With only one exception, all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken have accepted the thrust of the report, although they argued about the pace at which changes should be introduced. The one exception was my right hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) early in the debate. I want to take issue with him, although he is not here, because the record should be set straight on at least three areas where he damned our report with faint praise.
My right hon. Friend said that though a great deal of work had gone into the report and it was very pariseworthy, he thought that the Chamber would suffer, that there would be a division between specialists and the rest and, worse still, that the specialists on these new Committees would themselves perhaps be bought off.
Those arguments are fundamentally wrong. Equally, the other argument, which we have not heard today but which I had anticipated and will anticipate because I am sure it will be raised tomorrow when some other parliamentarians return from their extended 191 weekend, is that in some strange way the proposal to give more power to Select Committees would hamper the robust process of opposition which is the true nature of this place and the greater glory of the Chamber—that it would bring in overmuch consensus and rub away the sharp cutting edges of political debate.
All these arguments, whether they come from the consensual side—and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dart-ford is nothing if not a consensus man—or from the sharply partisan side, are mistaken. The reason why we need to have Select Committees which are better able to undertake the process of scrutiny than the existing Committees is precisely that we have suffered already, the House has suffered and the legislature has suffered, and when that happens the Chamber suffers, too. Our debates, however strident and partisan they may be, are less well informed. I cannot believe that that is good.
Nor can I believe my right hon. Friend when he says that the members of specialist Select Committees would become an elite who would argue amongst themselves, whereas the humble Member who was not of that group would feel inhibited from taking part in debates on the subject in the Chamber, or that in some stranger way still the members of the Select Committees could be bought off by the Government. If that is not the case now—and I have not heard anyone suggest it today—I cannot see that it would be the case in the future.
We want to extend the process of scrutiny as effectively as the House has, over centuries, extended and entrenched the process of opposition. If we can make scrutiny as recognised in the parliamentary process as opposition traditionally has been, we shall have improved the lot of Parliament.
The problem is that the existence of part-time Members inhibits this process. I quite accept what the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said about his own attendance here. He is a most assiduous Member and an excellent Chairman of Committees. However, from all the research that I have seen on the matter, only about half of the Members of this House attend Committees. That is the nature of the problem. Those hon. Mem- 192 bers have to shoulder more of the work and perhaps will have to shoulder even more in the future.
§ Mr. Whitehead
It is certainly the case that no one could be as part-time as a part-timer used to be.
As the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) has joined us, I can recall the case of a great-uncle of my wife who sat as the Conservative Member for Chelmsford for more than 10 years. He was a brewer by profession. He brought all the specialist knowledge of brewing to this Chamber. He spoke twice in this Chamber in 10 years, against taxes on beer. That kind of part-time Member is no longer with us. Whichever side of the House he was on, he would have been drummed out now. Certainly he would have been if he had sat on these Benches.
I believe that we ought to see in future that the Member of Parliament, given the great complexity of the job, if he is to be effective here, is first more of a specialist and, secondly, more or less full-time in his attendance. That is not to say that he should become some kind of Lobby fodder hack, intent only upon drawing the money for the amount of hours he puts in. Of course, one keeps up one's outside specialisations and contacts, but what sticks in the craw of many of us here is the notion that one should be remunerated for that and that one should have to go to a particular office in the Strand for a couple of hours a day just to put in enough time to draw one's fees for the directorship or consultancy. That happens on both sides of the House. The Members we shall come increasingly to respect in this place are the Members who do the work at the rate for the job. Those Members, we believe, should be given proper facilities. Half of us on the Committee believed that they should be full-time.
The right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), who spoke most eloquently in opening the debate, said in an exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) that the Committee had by what he alleged was a curious vote decided to put in one reference to full-time Members. The majority was even narrower on my hon. Friend's amendment, 193 which would have been paragraph 1.12 in the report. If we are to pray in aid why we were not present to vote, and have extra lists delineating our dinner engagements and our wedding anniversaries and so on as well as our abstentions and our votes, I suppose it could be said that the Committee was at all stages more or less equally divided. So is the House. I do not think that we shall have full-time Members yet, but we must have better-informed Members who are regular attenders.
When my constituents read about some of the great rows in Parliament over matters such as the Bingham report or the aid to Chrysler and so on, they frequently ask me why we had not acted upon the matters earlier and why Parliament was unable to discover the facts before the scandal. I admit that there is the good work of the Public Accounts Committee, and we have paid tribute to it in the report. From time to time, various Sub-Committees of the Expenditure Committee come across this or that matter. But I have to tell my constituents that one of the reasons why we did not stumble over the oil sanctions scandal was that there was no specialist Committee of the House examining the matter in detail in the 1960s when the facts could have been discovered.
I have to tell them about the Chrysler matter that when the Prime Minister of the day was able to stop the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster coming to give evidence to a Select Committee which just happened to be looking into the motor industry at the time, that was an absolute scandal and an insult to Parliament. In so far as the report strengthens us in that area, it is good and for the good of the House.
I turn now to the process of legislation through the Chamber. First, I come to the procedures on timetabling. I joined the Committee after a year of its proceedings and so I was not privy to the earlier discussions about timetabling. I thought at that time that perhaps the Committee had gone far enough. After further consideration, I now believe that, while we have checked certain abuses, we have not gone far enough to see that there is proper consideration of Bills and that there is not the gratuitous time-wasting on the one hand and the overweighted bullying by the Government on 194 the other which under present procedures are bound to accompany the processes of legislation.
I have come to the view that we need a House Business Committee which would act as an arbiter, which would not happen under the proposals in the report on the Government's allocation of time for any Bill and the Opposition's desire to delay. Delay is the great weapon of Oppositions, but it should be a selective weapon rather than a blunt instrument, and it is better when it is used in that way. If consideration were given to a House Business Committee, selected as we propose in the report but giving judgment on all Bills, that would be a better process for scrutinising the claims of Government that, for example, only six days as opposed to eight, nine or 10 days should be allocated to a Committee stage.
My final point—again, I draw on my own experience in these matters—is that the process of scrutiny and discussion of a Bill would be improved also by our recommendation for there to be a Select Committee stage in the so-called Public Bill Committees. The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said that everybody here knows about something. The only thing that I knew about in any detail when I came here was the process of broadcasting, and I happened to be stuck almost at once on the then Government's Sound Broadcasting Bill in 1972.
I was appalled by the procedures on that Committee. I was appalled by what my own side did as well as by the then Government's attempt to drive it through, because the whole thing was a kind of political Passchendaele. We were fighting over inches of territory—over hours gained. The only objective of the Opposition was to keep the Bill in Committee until Easter, and the Government's objective was to drive it through with the minimum changes possible and with the minimum discussion, so it seemed to me, of the specialised objections made to the various clauses.
Surely, it is better in the eyes and the interests of our constituents that, just as we should see to it that every clause of a Bill of concern to them is given proper time, whether taken in Standing Committee upstairs or here on the Floor of the House, and that the timetable should allow for that, equally we should hear the 195 specialised interests, and the civil servants, as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, since if that happened our constituents would not be able to say to us, as they do now, "You ignored these points. When Parliament passed this legislation there were these terrible flaws, and you did nothing. When you did nothing about it, it must have been because you cared nothing about it."
In fact, we have cared all right but we have not had the power to do anything about it in the past. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Lord President will take seriously the overwhelming opinion of the House, which we have heard today and, no doubt, we shall hear tomorrow, that the House should act upon these proposals in the interests of our entire democracy.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
Implicit in the speech of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and in many of the speeches in the debate thus far, I feel, is the idea that the House should in some way take over some of the functions of Government. To some extent that is desirable, and I certainly go along with the proposals so eloquently introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton), but I believe that the House ought to bear in mind that we are not the Executive. We are the legislature, and, therefore, we are bound to have at all times a certain amount of opposition from the Executive of the day, which cannot divest from itself the responsibility of Government.
One sees that far more clearly perhaps in the Washington constitutional scene, where the American Government are a sort of amalgamation, a market place where everyone is fighting for his bit of what he can get. But here it is much more rigid, perhaps, and we must, albeit from time to time most unwillingly, allow the Government to govern.
It seems to me that in the proposals before us we are asking for more open government and that at least we should be able to monitor more than we can at present what the Government are doing. But we cannot allocate to ourselves a position which will allow us to control them very strictly.
196 If I may respectfully say so, one of the themes which I draw from the document before us is that by introducing these new Committees we shall in some way find a sort of new harmony between the House and the Government of the day. On the contrary, I believe that the closer we press them the harder they will fight back. They must do so to carry out their duties. It does not follow that we should not press them. However, we should not lose from our minds the thought that by introducing new and perhaps more efficient Committees to scrutinise more closely the work of Government we shall introduce less conflict. We are likely to introduce more conflict.
My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) said that as a member of a working party outside the House he was privy to certain proposals of the Government which as a Member of Parliament he was not entitled to know. I have been in the same position recently as a member of a Select Committee. There are proposals from the Ministry of Defence for the reserve forces. When the Sub-Committee on Defence and External Affairs visited the reserve forces, it discovered that everybody present at the place of the visit—at least, all the officers and those in positions of responsibility—knew all about the proposals of the Government for the reserve forces. The proposals were contained in a report that the members of the Committee were not allowed to see. The officers had strict orders not to refer to the report when speaking to us. We felt humiliated.
There is a current example. The Sub-Committee of which I am a member is studying the rights and wrongs and the possibilities of replacing the nuclear weapon in the British armoury. To study that important issue, it asked the Ministry of Defence whether it could have before it various officers with certain responsibilities and scientists with responsibility under the Ministry of Defence who are also studying the issue. It asked for them to come before the Committee to give evidence. It was told that none of them could come. They were all ordered not to come before the Committee.
The only parliamentarian to come before the Committee to give evidence was the Secretary of State for Defence. 197 I yield to nobody in my admiration of our present Secretary of State, but I am bound to say that his evidence was extremely anodyne. It did not carry us far along the path of our important study. The Committee is not allowed by the Executive to hear any of those who are preparing the learned theses that are necessary to enable it to make up its mind.
It is disappointing that the Sub-Committee of the Select Committee is not allowed to hear the expert evidence that is at the disposal of the Ministry of Defence. Although I welcome unreservedly the proposals that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire outlined, and although there should be a better and more coherent system of Committees, I do not fool myself that by having more Committees, or better Committees, we shall be able to topple the Executive from the position that it wishes to adopt. I only wish that that were possible.
The House has a role to play, and I believe that it will be helped in fulfilling it by the proposals before us, but let us not fool ourselves that we shall get very much further forward. The position is fundamentally one of constitutional conflict, and we should realise that.
§ 11.38 p.m.
§ Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)
I rise to make a specific contribution on a specific recommendation. I hope not to detain the House too long in doing so.
It is perhaps symptomatic of the centralised legislature of the United Kingdom that we are discussing this important report—everyone who has contributed so far has emphasised its importance—during the week before the devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales. There is likely to be a less than average attendance from the Celtic periphery.
The proposals include reference to the Summer Recess. It is important that a Member from Scotland should say that there is something of more general importance in dovetailing the Sessions of Parliament into the school holidays than the precise circumstances affecting Scotland. Parliament has an obligation not only to the constituents of hon. Members and the responsibilities of hon. Members. If we are to promote good practice throughout 198 the country, it is up to Parliament to set an example to the community in general.
Only a few weeks ago, a Government working party felt that the importance of the family was such that it was compelled to recommend a Minister for the family within the Cabinet to emphasise the importance of the family to the national life and the national economy.
I think that some of the habits of this House as exemplified in the Procedure Committee's report indicate that perhaps we have become unduly obsessed with the importance of flexibility and the open-ended nature of the final Session of Parliament rather than with the obligation that Members of Parliament have to their families. That is no more emphasised than in the circumstances facing most Scottish Members of Parliament. As a recent addition to this House, perhaps it is impertinent of me to do the emphasising here. There is, however, evidence in appendix 51 to the report from the Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party relating to the circumstances applying to the 71 Scottish Members of Parliament.
I mention that evidence since the point is not simply a national one. It is not even a Scottish one, because the nature of school holidays applies as uniquely in the North of England as it does in Scotland, terminating as they do just at the point at which this House goes into recess. This is the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It is not the Parliament—and even after devolution it will not be the Parliament—simply of England. Therefore, if we are to recognise periods of holiday, as distinct from periods of parliamentary recess, we must take into account the circumstances prevailing in parts of the United Kingdom other than England.
The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson), the Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party, said in his evidence at appendix 51:Scottish M. P. s…are also deprived of the company of their children during most of the school holidays.I think that it would be more effective to say that the children of Members of Parliament are deprived of the company usually of their fathers and occasionally of their mothers during that period—a part of their school holiday regarded by 199 most educationists as being of considerable importance to a child's upbringing.
At the same time, the majority of school holidays for the children of Scottish and North of England Members are taken up with their parents being involved in perhaps the heaviest part of a Session of Parliament. As one who had his initial experience solely in that period, I think that the 1978 Session, being a fairly light one in parliamentary history, tends to drive home the point that the emphasis on the family is taking less and less of a part in Parliament's priorities.
The recommendation in the Procedure Committee's report is that an earlier rising of Parliament for the long Summer Recess is desirable and should be sought. It is, however, said in other evidence to the Committee that the existence of an open-ended Session is necessary for the relationship between the Back Bencher and Parliament as a whole. But I think that, given that there is a remarkable similarity in the times at which Parliament acts, it may be open-ended in theory but there is a remarkable coincidence of dates, as described in the Committee's report, which tends to suggest that if there were ever any temptation by the Government to overrun the beginning of August and go into more than the second week of that month there would be a mass rebellion by those Members who come from parts of the United Kingdom other than Scotland or the North of England.
I believe that Parliament must pay regard to the interests of the families of Members of Parliament. This is not simply a parochial or partisan point to be made by individuals who have young families, or even by those who come from areas of the country with eccentric school holiday dates.
If we are to lay down values for the rest of the community in looking after our families and paying regard to children's welfare, it is up to Parliament to take a lead in doing that. Due concern should be paid to the recommendation contained in paragraph 9.30(iii) when the report finds its way into legislation.
§ Mr. Adam Butler (Bosworth)
Hon. Members will know why it is fairly rare for me to participate in debates. That is also the reason why I was not able to 200 attend the opening Front Bench speeches. The fact that I am here shortly before midnight is an indication of the importance that I attach to the subject. The debate will last for two days, during which we shall collect the voices and air our views on the recommendations of the Procedure Committee.
I agree that Friday business should start early in the day if it can be arranged. Friday is generally a day when I visit my constituency. This precludes me from taking part in important business, which is generally Private Members' business. Many Members of Parliament have a similar experience. It would be of considerable benefit if we rose at 2.30 pm on Fridays. As most Members of Parliament stay in London on Thursday nights, there is no reason why we should not meet at the earlier hour of 9.30 am.
I have great sympathy with what the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) said about the recess. We must pay greater regard to hon. Members' families and the changes in school holidays. We cannot possibly fix the dates of recesses in advance. The parliamentary timetable must be flexible for Government and Opposition business. Let us have greater regard for the school holidays and the demands of our families.
The question of Standing and Select Committees on Bills was one of the most interesting ideas considered by the Select Committee. For a long time there have been various ways of looking at the subjects of Bills, which may proceed through the party route. Reference was made to the party committees. That is one way in which matters dealt with in a Bill can be considered. Hon Members may consider the individual subjects. It is very much for the Government to deal with subjects either through the Green Paper or the White Paper procedure.
Lobbies are becoming much stronger than in the past. Whether we should upset the Standing Committee procedure for Bills is a question that needs detailed consideration. However, there is a strong case—I go no further—for having a Select Committee procedure on Bills, to which the representations of the lobbies can be made in public rather than through private Members which is generally accepted today. My experience will be similar to that of other hon. Members. 201 Generally, we refer representations to colleagues sitting on the Committee dealing with the Bill in question. There is a considerable argument in favour of a Select Committee procedure on Bills before they go to Standing Committee.
The main proposal of the Procedure Committee on Select Committees shadows the main Departments of State. This is part of the process which I believe we have to go through to strengthen the role of Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive and the attendant bureaucracy. The tendency in recent times has been to move far away from Parliament. The debate has been largely non-political, but I see this tendency as being very much represented in the Government's approach to settling some of our national problems through the special relationships held with one main power group in our society, the Trades Union Congress. I believe that this tendency is constitutionally unhealthy and that it is essential that we bring back power to Parliament in as many ways as we can. That is one reason why I have been a keen supporter of sound radio and, indeed, of television, believing those to be ways of bringing attention back to Parliament and having the main speeches which affect the future of this country made in this place.
But we have the difficulty in our parliamentary system that we manage to combine the Executive with the legislature in the shape of the same people, and the tendency over the past years has been for the Executive to gain control and, through the two-party system, to be able to put through Parliament virtually what it wants, provided it controls its majority. It does not follow, if we strengthen the Select Committee system, that that majority will not be able to be used by an unscrupulous Executive. Probably most of us who have served on Select Committees would agree that there is something about them that seems to break down the party system. I think that that feeling can survive if we proceed with the recommendations of the Select Committee.
My own experience for about 18 months was on the Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee, which took some valuable evidence on the role of public money in the 202 private sector of industry. Indeed, we almost bypassed this place, for by the evidence that we took we contributed to the Industry Act 1972. On that Sub-Committee we were able to produce a unanimous report, as has so often been the experience of the Sub-Committees of the Expenditure Committee. At least for a time we seemed to put aside some of our party political differences. That feeling will not survive in the same way as it has done in the past if we adopt a system of shadow Select Committees, but I still think that it has a good chance of so doing. It is probably valuable for thrashing out some of the problems that confront us.
But the role of those Committees that I see as being most valuable is that of being able to quiz the Civil Service and the Ministers concerned with policy in their Departments. I have one particular proviso in this respect. I do not see that the Government of the day can operate if they have to disclose their forward thinking to a Select Committee in more than general terms. Therefore, I would expect the Committees, if they are to be set up, to be bound principally by the requirement to look at the historical position—perhaps in the same way as when Ministers appear before the Public Accounts Committee. It looks historically at the way in which they have performed in financial matters, but: Minister do not, for reasons that the House will understand, lay bare their forward thinking on policy, except in general terms. That is an important proviso which I hope the Committee will have to observe.
Mention has been made of the need for specialisation if we are to go down this route. It has always been my view that in order to make an impact in this place it is essential to specialise. We can all make general speeches outside the House on any subject that we like. The respect that any Member gains when he is speaking in this Chamber or in Committee comes from his experience or specialist knowledge. Therefore, it does not worry me that any Member serving on Committees should become increasingly specialist in his own subject.
However, we must avoid the American Congressional system, where, by and large, a Congressman will serve his entire Congressional life on a specialist committee and the chairmanship changes 203 through the process of stepping into dead men's shoes. I hope that we shall have the sort of flexibility that we have now through our Select Committee system. Nevertheless, some hon. Members will develop a particular expertise and will be all the more valuable for that.
Various hon. Members have referred to the problem of getting Select Committee reports debated in the Chamber. It would be valuable to have the new Select Committee procedure with proceedings held in public. But that will be only half the task. It will be incomplete if the reports are not properly debated in the House. This may be wishful thinking. We all know that if a Select Committee report is being debated the Chamber tends to empty and that those excellent hon. Members from both sides of the House who served on the Committee will debate the subject, probably using exactly the same phraseology and arguments as they used in the Committee.
What the Government do—perhaps we can bind them by resolution of the House—is to find more time for Select Committee reports to be debated here. Then it will be up to individual hon. Members to treat them with the importance that they deserve. But I hope that if the whole emphasis can move towards this procedure, and if the importance of this new procedure is fully realised, the reports will be treated with the importance that they deserve.
There is one final point that I must make very strongly. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office, who is taking notes of what is said, will make strong representations to the Lord President that after this two-day debate we should have the opportunity to vote on the Procedure Committee's recommendations. I cannot stress that enough. I do not believe that the argument holds that we should wait until a new Parliament. Of course, one can suggest that a new Parliament might decide on its own rules, but it is nonsense to deny to a large number of right hon. and hon. Members who will be leaving this place at the next election, voluntarily or involuntarily, the opportunity to give of their wisdom and experience in a vote on the Procedure Committee's recommendations, which I believe to be among the most important 204 things the House has had to consider for some while.
§ 11.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)
As I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler), and as it is the normal tradition in this House, I should like to take up a point he raised. I shall refer to it later, but I wish to emphasise it now. The specialist is someone—perhaps not simply because of the role he has played in Committee, but because he can come to the House and speak with authority on a given subject—who has listened to, plays the greatest part in and makes the greatest contribution to the debates and the continuation of the work of the House. I do not apologise for rising to speak at this time. I listened to four hours of the debate before I had to leave for a short while.
I wish to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) on his speech and the work that he and his Committee have done. It was a great service to the House. There are many of us who have been here not for very long but for 15 or 20 years who want to see a modernisation of our procedure. Certainly my right hon. and learned Friend and his Committee have, I hope, provided a means to take positive steps in that direction.
§ Sir David Renton
I was not the Chairman. It was the hon. and learned Member for Warrington (Sir T. Williams).
§ Mr. Emery
I understood that. I did say "on his speech". I did not refer to my right hon. and learned Friend as being the Chairman.
At this hour I do not wish to be critical, but I am sorry that the report did not stress that this is a debating Chamber and should remain so. It should not be a Chamber of set speeches, prepared in advance and presented whether by Front Bench Ministers or by experts on one side or the other who wish to put a particular point of view. Whatever reforms are introduced, we should try to ensure that we attempt to stimulate hon. Members to debate the subject and to argue contra, one with the other, about the matters raised during that debate. From my reading of the report, I am sorry to say that that does not come out very clearly. That is something which 205 I hope we shall ensure in whatever reform we carry through.
I take issue with one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw). He made an interesting speech, but I did not agree when he said that we are not the Executive but the legislature.
§ Mr. Emery
Well, I can, and I intend so to do. One of the problems is that too often in the House the Executive, because of its strength, is able to ensure that the legislature does exactly what it, the Executive, wants. Therefore, the Executive has taken unto itself the power of forcing legislation through the House so that the legislature has no power to alter it. That, I believe, is something which could be altered on the lines of the American system.
I am sorry to have to draw on American aspects, but in the American system the Executive is not, and cannot be, the absolute legislature, whereas all too often in Government business it is not this House which actually forms the legislature, although it may rubber-stamp it in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud suggests.
§ Mr. Kershaw
My hon. Friend must not always look for pie in the sky. He may think that the American constitution is better than ours, but we do not have a federal constitution. Here we have the Executive and legislature mixed up as to personalities but with very different functions. The Executive must govern, and the legislature must talk. That my hon. Friend is doing extremely well. But it is no good his talking as if he can talk himself into being the Executive, because constitutionally he cannot do that. He will have to wait for a general election before he can do that.
§ Mr. Emery
I do not believe that I am talking about pie in the sky. I think that my hon. Friend is trying to bemuse my argument. What I am suggesting has nothing to do with general elections or with whichever party occupies the Treasury Bench. But my hon. Friend, who has been a Minister, knows only too well that too often in this Chamber the Executive is able to present a Bill which, if it wishes, it can force through com- 206 pletely unamended, whatever the House may think. That is no strength to the legislature. Therefore, there is no sense in attempting to argue that the Executive is not a legislature, because it is very much the case that it is.
I turn to three specific aspects of the report and then to two matters about the Sessional Committee's reports. I was a member of the Sessional Committee, and I do not believe that its reports have been considered to the extent that I would have wished because of the importance of the main report.
I turn first to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. There has been great play, and a great argument from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), that the House is wrong in attempting to follow the recommendation of the Procedure Committee. I served on the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries for three years, and the point that has not been made is that that Committee covers and deals with a set nationalised industry only about once every five years. Once it has finished its report that nationalised industry has no worry for three, four or five years hence.
§ Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)
I am a member of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. For the last few years we have had a habit of considering the annual reports and accounts of as many of the nationalised industries as we can. That at least gives us some scrutiny over them. In addition, we carry out in-depth probings from time to time.
§ Mr. Emery
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I think that she underlined what I said. She said that the Committee undertook "in-depth probings from time to time". What I am suggesting is that in respect of the major nationalised industries that "in depth" probing is carried out about once every five years.
If the possibility of aligning that with the ministerial responsibilities of the set subject factors as suggested in the report is accepted, any nationalised industry will know that a running consideration of that industry is taking place all the time. I see that as an advantage. It does not overcome certain of the advantages which the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries has been able to present, but it 207 is a counter-argument that must be presented before one comes to a decision on whether one abolishes the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries.
I turn, secondly, to paragraph 9.23 of the report. That says:We consider that the work of a Member of Parliament should be a full-time job, particularly if the proposals in this report for increasing parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive are accepted.I know that this was an amendment to the report which was carried by a split decision of six votes to five. But I reject this absolutely and completely. If this Chamber becomes one for nothing but full-time politicians, it will lower its standing in the country by 10 times the degree to which it has been lowered over the last four or five years. If a Member of Parliament cannot bring to his decision-making an up-to-date experience of what the world outside politics is about, he will be making the worst possible decisions. Decisions based purely on party politics are the worst types of decisions, be they about economics, industry or so many of the subjects on which the Executive must decide. It is partly because that has been happening more and more that this Chamber has lost much of the respect that it used to have in the eyes of the public.
I make no judgment about anyone else, but I do not hold myself as being the most able or the most hard-working Member of Parliament. However, for the whole of my 20 years as a Member of the House, other than the time during which I was a Minister, I have held executive responsibility in companies—not merely responsibility as a director—at the same time as I have carried on my parliamentary duties. It has meant that one has had to work damned hard. But I have enjoyed it and loved it. I make no complaint.
I believe that the fact that I can come to the House with a knowledge of the oil industry and of banking today—not of 10 or 15 years ago, as is too often the case with some who merely sit on boards—and with an executive responsibility allows me to talk with an authority which people outside the House respect. People outside the House have no respect for Members who blabber away on matters 208 about which they think they know something because they have read about them—not because they know actively at that time what is going on in a certain industry or concern.
§ Mr. Emery
On the matters concerned, they then take decisions which affect the whole of the community.
Therefore, it would be a great blow to parliamentary democracy if we insisted that Members of Parliament here, similar to those in America, had no real outside interests. Many senior American Senators and Members of the House of Representatives say that one of the tragedies of the American system is that Members have these interests unofficially. They cannot declare them. They must not be known about. It is done under the counter. Surely that is the worst of all possible worlds. Therefore, it is essential that we have here a large number of Members of Parliament who are able to carry on a duality of jobs.
I accept that it is wrong for hon. Members who do anything outside the House to expect the House to organise its activities for their benefit. One's first interest must be the House of Commons, and one one must be able to deal with and carry out the full responsibilities of the House. It would be wrong if the House arranged its timetable, debates or Committees to meet the convenience of outside interests.
I have argued about the need to encourage Members to gain experience outside. I talk not only of industry but of trade unions and journalism. I am happy for Members to have any industrial or other interest. It should be secondary to their parliamentary commitments; but that should make them better able to make decisions.
I turn to the subject of questions to the Prime Minister. Any Member who has been in the House for a time will accept that questions to the Prime Minister have altered in character in the last 10 years. I do not wish to judge whether that has been good or bad. But it is strange that we should not want the Prime Minister to give the most serious and well-reasoned reply to any hon. Member.
The type of question that has evolved, such as "When is the Prime Minister meeting the TUC or the CBI?" or 209 " What are his arrangements?", is regarded as an enabling question which allows an hon. Member to pose any question which he believes will hit the headlines on that day.
The House must decide whether that is good or bad. I judge that it is not good. The Prime Minister should have the right—and the protection—of answering in depth the questions which are asked. Therefore I approve the recommendations on this matter. They will ensure that we have a better discipline and a system which is an improvement on the parliamentary "bingo game" which means that the cleverest question is broadcast on radio and quoted in the newspapers. That is not what the House is about. I hope that the House is wise enough to escape from it.
I turn to the question of Standing Order No. 9. The judgment of the Committee, even before the happenings of the last two months, is correct. It is even more correct now than it was before. What happened was that Members of Parliament were taking advantage of the original purpose of Standing Order No. 9 to raise constituency matters or issues which might gain them publicity. They knew that there was little chance of their application being accepted, but this method gave them the chance of using prime parliamentary time, before Orders of the Day, to raise a subject which they could not otherwise have debated.
The Select Committee suggested that the Standing Order No. 9 procedure should operate in the same way as a private notice question and that it should be for Mr. Speaker to judge whether the matter was of sufficient importance to allow an hon. Member to put it to the House. It seemed to us on the Committee that that was the way to bring some order into the situation in the face of ever-increasing applications under Standing Order No. 9. I accept that this imposes greater responsibility on Mr. Speaker, who already has enough burdens. It is unkind to burden him further. However, it is not something to which Mr. Speaker is unaccustomed.
During the proceedings in Committee we were made aware that some hon. Members had suggested to Mr. Speaker that if their private notice question was not allowed they would make an application under Standing Order No. 9. That is 210 a pressure to which the Chair ought not to be subjected and a procedure which should not be allowed to hon. Members. It reinforced our argument that we were right to recommend the limitation on applications under Standing Order No. 9.
I accept the Committee's recommendation that we should have specialist Committees to shadow a number of Ministers. This is the only way in which we can decrease the authority of the Executive. Those who were present at the beginning of the debate will recall that I asked the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving), about any other method of limiting the power of the Executive. It seemed that he was not able to give an alternative method.
Therefore, while I endorse absolutely the appointment of these Committees. I do not believe that the House has considered in depth from which side of the House the Chairman of such a Commit tee should be appointed. If the Chairman is a member of the party in Government, the Committee may be seen as an adjunct of the Minister and a method of following Government policy. If he is a member of an Opposition party, he will immediately be seen as an opponent of the Government, attempting at all times to criticise the activities of the Executive and the Minister. But he cannot be somebody in between. The House must come to grips with that problem when setting up the Committees.
I urge that the Chairmen be drawn from the Opposition. That will not please the Government in power.
§ Mr. English
I congratulate the hon. Member on raising a point that we did not discuss in detail. At present, both Government and Opposition Members chair a variety of Committees. For example, the Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee that I chair has always had a Labour Chairman, whatever the party in Government. There are other examples, and there are Committees that are always chaired by Opposition Members. Both are possible.
§ Sir David Renton
The strict position under the rules of order is that each Select Committee chooses its own Chairman. Theoretically, the field is open.
§ Mr. Emery
I thank the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. and learned 211 Friend for their interventions. I am delighted that at 23 minutes past 12 we are debating the report in this way. But I am a cynic. I believe that the Chairman is more likely to be a nominee acceptable to the Government Whips. I do not think that I am far wrong in my judgment of the behind-the-scenes operation. In theory the Committee may make its own choice, but there is a good deal of influence on that decision. It would be fairer to face the point: is that Chairman pro-Government or anti-Government? If we are to get a degree of independence for the House, that Chairman should not be from the party in Government. That may be difficult for Ministers and the Executive. But they have had it their way for too long. It is about time that this House brought authority back to the Chamber and its Members. That is one way to achieve it.
Let us all pray that the Government bring some decision-making procedure to the Floor of the House before we go into a general election. Government supporters may say that it will be difficult and unpopular, and that it should be left to the new Government. However, we still have nine months to go. We all know that there will not be a general election until October. There is plenty of time. If the task is left to the incoming Government, they will have so many difficulties to overcome that the chance of their spending time dealing with the procedure of this House in the first 12 months of their period in office is very slight Therefore, I suggest that it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that the House is able to come to decisions on certain of these recommendations before a general election.
I have signed the early-day motion tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire. I did so with a slightly heavy heart. My reason for doing so is that I want some of these matters decided. However, if my right hon. and learned Friend really hopes that all the recommendations will be voted upon individually, with amendments, and so on, we shall find ourselves devoting weeks to the job.
I hope that the usual channels will get together and decide how we can come to 212 a number of sensible decisions on the recommendations in the report. But it is essential that before we go into a general election we decide the method by which the new Parliament should set about dealing with the next five years after the election. If we can achieve that, it will be of great benefit to this House and the nation as a whole.
§ 12.27 a.m.
§ Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)
It is rare that a Back Bencher can rise in this House knowing that there is almost no constraint on his ability to address the House for as long as he wants to. It is the general experience of Back Benchers that they rise towards the end of a debate and feel constrained to be much more brief than they would choose to be. Rarely does a Back Bencher have more than five minutes in which to address the House. As a simple engineer, I must tell hon. Members that, having done a little equation of the ability of this House to hear Back Benchers, it is the norm for Back Benchers to have not more than the chance of making three 10-minute speeches in a year. That is the standard which most Back Benchers have to accommodate in their life in this House. It works out at about 0.03 seconds per constituent over the life of one year of a Back Bencher in this House.
I am inclined to the view, having looked at these long volumes of the Select Committees' reports, that, welcome as they are to this House, we have approximately twice as many Members of Parliament as the country needs. If I were one of those who went to the wall, so be it. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as my constituency neighbour, would naturally wish me to be one who went to the wall. But with the necessary adequate support there is no reason why each hon. Member could not deal with constituencies twice the size of those we now serve. Therefore, we would have a better chance to serve double the number of constituents.
I welcome the idea that Select Committees should look more broadly at the work of Government Departments. You will be aware from your experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the standard of interrogation in those Select Committees shows the inadequacies of today's Government machinery. It is not sufficient to look after the government of this country, 213 and I do not think that either the Government or the Opposition can be satisfied with the reports that Select Committees produce on the standard of the Executive and the Civil Service.
We are not now getting on the Floor of the House the standard of information that we as Members of Parliament expect to enable us adequately to interrogate Ministers. Today was a beautiful example of the ability of a Government Front Bench to fail to communicate information that was sought by its own Back Benchers and by the Opposition. The standard today is not sufficient for the continuity of democracy, and I believe that this House must reform itself, because there is no other means by which it shall be done.
§ Mr. Peter Snape (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.